This book started out so brilliantly that I was convinced it was going to end up being one of my favorite novels. Weisgall re-imagines author George E...moreThis book started out so brilliantly that I was convinced it was going to end up being one of my favorite novels. Weisgall re-imagines author George Eliot's honeymoon in Venice following the death of her longtime lover George Lewes and her subsequent marriage to a young admirer. What made this premise intriguing was the contrast between her new relationship and the old, underscored by Eliot's memories of her past visit to Venice with Lewes. Eliot had shared a joyful relationship with George Lewes, who was clearly her intellectual and sensual match, but she had to endure the ignominy of being in an illicit affair since Lewes was already married. Eliot's new husband, the handsome and much younger John Cross, offered her his devotion and the respectability of being in a sanctified marriage but ultimately could not fulfill her in more ways than one.
The opening scene of the book, in which painter James Whistler spies George Eliot across the Piazza San Marco, is one of the most satisfying revelations of character I have ever read. We get to see the layers of this remarkable woman unfold through Whistler's thoughtful eyes. With her back turned to him, from the way she speaks and carries herself, Whistler first imagines Eliot to be a great beauty, only to be taken aback at her ugliness when she finally turns around. But as he continues to watch her marvel excitedly at the sea snail fossils embedded in the stones of San Marco square, he finds her magnetic and begins to identify the nuances of her beauty. Clearly, he "gets her" in a way that her dunderhead of a husband never will.
What kept this book from being one of my favorites was the ending--though I can't really fault the author, can I? After all, Weisgall stayed true to the facts of Eliot's life. But having fallen in love with George Eliot, I wanted a better ending for her.
Interspersed between the chapters about Eliot is the story of another character in Venice, a modern day woman married to a wealthy and controlling older man. Perhaps Weisgall gives her the happy ending that she would have wished for Eliot. (less)
I took a writing class with Amy Bloom during my freshman year of college. What stuck with me most from this class was her insistence that even when yo...moreI took a writing class with Amy Bloom during my freshman year of college. What stuck with me most from this class was her insistence that even when you're writing about an unlikable, even villainous, character, it is essential that you have sympathy for that character, or the story won't work.
That perspective is what I admire most about Amy Bloom's fiction. Almost all of the characters in Away are seriously flawed human beings, but she paints such vivid portraits of these characters' inner lives and complex pasts that I couldn't help but have sympathy for all of them and admire more than a few of them.
Away is set in the 1920s and follows the travels of Lillian Leyb, a young Jewish immigrant from Russia whose family was brutally killed in a pogrom. Lillian's chutzpah and beauty catch the fancy of Yiddish theater kings, Reuben and Meyer Burstein; under their patronage, she begins to make a new life for herself in New York City. But one day, a cousin arrives from Russia with news that Lillian's daughter, Sophie, is alive in Siberia, and Lillian sets out on a journey to find her daughter. This time, though, instead of crossing the Atlantic, she traverses the United States and makes her way up the west coast towards the wilds of Alaska. Lillian's tenacity makes her an easy character to root for; what makes her so memorable, though, as a heroine, are her clear-eyed yet compassionate appraisals of the people she encounters along the way.
A fan of historical fiction, I found great pleasure in Bloom's rendering of the glamor and bustle of 1920s New York, the sultry seediness of Seattle's Skid Row, and the bleak wilderness of the Canadian frontier. I also loved her seamless use of flash forwards, letting us know what would happen to all of the minor characters we meet, decades into the future. (Edward P. Jones used this device to great effect in The Known World--a book that Away reminds me of in other ways, with its epic cast of characters and its sober view of human nature.)
Last note: Amy Bloom writes great sex scenes! She writes them with unflinching honesty--she is clearly fascinated by the ways in which people use sex to gain advantage in life--and yet, again, her compassionate perspective comes through clearly no matter how unconventional, uncomfortable, or ugly the sexual situations her characters find themselves in. (less)