Not such a del­i­cate flower

Amy Bloom’s read­ers must get used to shar­ing her with a wider au­di­ence, writes John Free­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

MY Bloom is the most un­likely op­po­nent of com­plain­ing you are likely to en­counter. Long be­fore she made a name as a writer of plan­gent, soul­ful short sto­ries about the emo­tional lives of ev­ery­day peo­ple, the 54- year- old Amer­i­can earned a liv­ing as a psy­chother­a­pist. Peo­ple liked to tell her things, and she in turn found her­self able to help by lis­ten­ing.

But as ded­i­cated as she is to the talk­ing cure, Bloom has no pa­tience for sad sap sto­ries. ‘‘ It’s only in the mod­ern world that you get points for be­ing a vic­tim,’’ says Bloom, sit­ting in a diner in West Hol­ly­wood, where she has been liv­ing for the past few months to work on a television show.

She ap­plies this no tol­er­ance rule even to her­self. ‘‘ Peo­ple say, LA can kill your soul.’’ Bloom casts one of her big ex­pres­sive eyes out­doors at the sun al­ready beat­ing down at 8.30am. ‘‘ Well, I’m not such a del­i­cate flower.’’

It could just be that the cast of her novel Away has also put such is­sues in con­text. As the novel opens, Bloom’s hero­ine, Lil­lian Leyb, a Rus­sian Jew who wit­nessed her en­tire fam­ily be­ing mur­dered one night by gen­tile neigh­bours in a pogrom, ar­rives on the Lower East Side. ‘‘ At 22,’’ Bloom writes, ‘‘ she was an or­phan, a widow, and the mother of a dead child, for which there’s not even a spe­cial word, it’s such a ter­ri­ble thing.’’

On the ad­vice of a greedy aunt, who al­ways cov­eted her fam­ily’s home, Lil­lian has come to the Big Ap­ple to ply her trade as a seam­stress. Be­ing a wo­man, and a not bad look­ing one at that, she winds up ply­ing much more when she falls in with the Bursteins, two Yid­dish theatre im­pre­sar­ios who have trou­ble with their w’s and a gang­ster­ish role in Lower East Side nightlife.

Bloom grew up in Brook­lyn, but long af­ter many of th­ese the­atres closed. Still, she saw flick­ers of this fab­u­lous world at its fringes. ‘‘ My sis­ter and I would be called on to at­tend th­ese Sun­day soirees . . . to come pass around hors d’oeu­vres to a lot of short, bar­rel- chested men with vel­vet fe­do­ras and made- up ladies. There was Rus­sian and there was Ger­man and there was Yid­dish and there was French, and there was my aunt’s spec­tac­u­lar host­ing.’’

As much as she misses that world, Bloom isn’t about to sen­ti­men­talise it. Like the fu­ture Hol­ly­wood star­lets and pro­duc­ers, Lil­lian is used by — and uses in turn — the Bursteins. Bloom has al­ready re­ceived one note from a reader crit­i­cis­ing her for mak­ing Lil­lian a cal­cu­lat­ing mistress, but Bloom is un­apolo­getic. ‘‘ What was she go­ing to do?’’ she says. ‘‘ I was not much in­ter­ested in glossy sen­ti­men­tal ire, which pre­tends to be tough but in the end is re­ally just ‘ poor me’.’’

Most other read­ers aren’t com­plain­ing, how­ever. In the US the book was a sur­prise run­away best­seller, land­ing on The New York Times list at No 3 in its open­ing week of sales, ter­ri­tory most of­ten re­served for James Pater­son and John Gr­isham. Even the acid- tongued Lionel Shriver was im­pressed. ‘‘ Her ex­e­cu­tion is ex­quis­ite,’’ she

Awrote in the Los An­ge­les Times , ‘‘ and ex­quis­ite ex­e­cu­tion is rare, not only in books but ( alas) in al­most any un­der­tak­ing.’’

To the small but loyal group of read­ers who have been fol­low­ing Bloom’s ca­reer, this exquisite­ness is not a sur­prise; what is a sur­prise is hav­ing to share Bloom with a wider au­di­ence. Un­til now, Bloom has been known pri­mar­ily as an au­thor of short sto­ries, a medium widely sup­ported in lit­er­ary jour­nals in the US, but less so at book­stores.

Even Bloom’s evo­lu­tion has been quiet. She be­gan writ­ing in her spare time in the late 1980s and early ’ 90s, and never ex­pected much to come of it. When she was told her first book, Come to Me, was a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Award, her re­sponse was: ‘‘ What is the Na­tional Book Award?’’ Her sec­ond book of sto­ries, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You , was a Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle fi­nal­ist.

For a while, Bloom stuck with this tal­ent. Even her first novel, Love In­vents Us , grew out of a story and un­folds in a se­ries of story- like chap­ters. But Bloom knew early on that Away would be an epic novel, if on her own terms. ‘‘ I like to think of this book as a medicine ball,’’ Bloom says with a laugh. ‘‘ A lot denser than would at first ap­pear.’’

Af­ter Lil­lian learns her daugh­ter may in fact be alive, she jour­neys back across the US to­wards Siberia, meet­ing a se­ries of char­ac­ters along the way.

Away is the first book that re­quired a lot of re­search from Bloom, and she dived into it feet first: de­scrip­tions of train jour­neys of the time, sen­ti­men­tal nov­els of the Lower East Side from the ’ 20s by Fan­nie Hurst, many of which she read as a girl.

One of the most im­por­tant pieces, how­ever, was right un­der her nose: a mem­oir left be­hind by her grand­fa­ther that Bloom’s fa­ther had trans­lated from the Yid­dish. ‘‘ He had been a

so­cial­ist, but had a con­ver­sion to cap­i­tal­ism when he came to this coun­try; he saw the smoke­stacks and thought, ‘ What a won­der­ful coun­try’.’’ Bloom finds this abil­ity to change and adapt fas­ci­nat­ing, and still, in spite of so much im­mi­grant fiction, an un­told story. ‘‘ This sense of all th­ese sto­ries un­told is what’s in­ter­est­ing to me,’’ she says. In this sense, she feels a kin­ship be­tween her char­ac­ters and peo­ple she knows. ‘‘ I feel like there are peo­ple I know who have suf­fered tremen­dous loss, and the fact that they get up ev­ery day and love their chil­dren and make jokes . . . I just, I’ve been very lucky in my life. As my fa­ther used to say to me, you’re smart, but bet­ter lucky than smart.’’

* * * THROUGH­OUT her ca­reer as a writer, th­ese words seem to have shined down on Bloom. A cou­ple of years ago, she was ap­proached by two TV pro­duc­ers who liked her writ­ing and wanted to know if she had any ideas. She came back with a pro­posal for a show about five ther­a­pists and the lives that un­fold af­ter hours.

The show got the green light, a hefty cast, and pre­miered this sum­mer in the US to pos­i­tive re­views. Bloom, who stud­ied theatre and was trained as an ac­tor, en­joys the col­lab­o­ra­tive work and the speed with which it is re­leased to the pub­lic. On some oc­ca­sions, lines she writes are spo­ken, shot, and on the air just 16 hours later. In real life, Bloom was mar­ried for many years to a pro­fes­sor at Wes­leyan Univer­sity, raised three chil­dren, di­vorced and then lived for many years with a wo­man. She is now en­gaged to marry a man, an ar­chi­tect. Many of Bloom’s short sto­ries con­tain gay or bi­sex­ual char­ac­ters and she says that’s not an at­tempt to al­ter the fam­ily. It’s just who she dreams about in fiction.

‘‘ I think in­evitably you write what you are, or what feels true to you. Most of the stuff that peo­ple find im­moral or dis­turb­ing, I feel like, well, that’s the way it is, isn’t it?’’

Pre­vi­ously, Bloom’s fiction marked her as unique and quirky, un­til she went pub­lic about be­ing bi­sex­ual, whereby it be­came queer. She is aware, to a de­gree, that Away will mark her as a Jewish writer as noth­ing else has done yet, and she’s fine with that la­bel but thinks it’s sim­ply short­hand for some­thing larger.

‘‘ There is a way when you plunge into a cer­tain kind of novel, it’s like there’s a kind of rock you have to tie around your an­kle to go down and do what­ever it is. And for lots of it, it’s the past, and as you go farther into any Amer­i­can’s past, is­sues of cul­ture and eth­nic­ity loom larger.’’

That’s the long an­swer to where the book came from. Fin­ish­ing up her flap­jacks, Bloom pro­vides a ti­dier and equally true one: ‘‘ That I can write things that mat­ter to me and peo­ple want to read and some­one will pub­lish? That feels great.’’

Away by Amy Bloom ( Granta, 224pp, $ 29.95). John Free­man is pres­i­dent of the US Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle.

Ex­quis­ite writ­ing: US nov­el­ist Amy Bloom, the au­thor of Away , about a mother’s search for her child

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