by Evelyn Somers
In March of 2013, I had the opportunity to hear Amy Bloom read at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in Boston. Compared to the record-breaking snow Boston experienced this year, the nor’easter that hit the city late that winter was a trifle, though it brought with it inconveniences and disappointments of weather-related derailments. The Friday evening reading that paired Richard Russo and Amy Bloom, however, was not one of the disappointments.
I went because I knew Russo’s work and wanted to hear him. I knew little about Amy Bloom, other than having heard she was worth reading. I learned that night that both Bloom the woman and Bloom the authorial voice make strong first impressions.
Writer Leah Hager Cohen introduced Bloom—a striking, dark presence in a long black jacket and black pants, with severe, dark brows. Bloom’s bio is a miscellaney of academic, creative, and professional experience. She is the author of four story collections and three novels—her third was then in progress—along with a picture book for children, Little Sweet Potato, and a nonfiction book with the self-explanatory title Normal: Transexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude. She’s the creator of the TV series “State of Mind,” a comedy/drama about psychotherapists, which ran for one season on Lifetime. And Bloom is also a practicing psychotherapist with degrees in theater, political science, and social work from Wesleyan and Smith; she even made a brief foray into acting—the subject shows up a lot in her fiction.
The credentials Cohen read were diverse and impressive, but not as impressive as Amy Bloom in person. The word “commanding” came to mind as I watched her on the stage. Cohen concluded by observing, “The most subversive thing about her writing is not the transgressive situations it illuminates; it’s our own reactions to them, because she writes in such a way that we are, to our surprise, not shocked, not appalled. Bloom is much more than a writer who takes on extreme forms of human behavior; she does so in a way that offers her readers a fuller grasp of our own humanity.”
“Subversive.” “Transgressive.” “Extreme.” “Human.” Having had a chance to explore Bloom’s fiction recently, I can attest that all these terms apply.
That night in 2013, Bloom read from her novel Lucky Us, then in the final stages of revision. Lucky Us is a story about improvisation, performance and family, set during World War II and its aftermath. It begins with narrator Eva Logan’s mother abandoning the preadolescent Eva to her father, Edgar Acton, a part-time father who has another family and who has only visited Eva and her mother on weekends, never lived with them. Eva’s eyes are soon opened: her mother doesn’t want her, and Edgar—an English professor (who, we will later discover, married into his credentials rather than earning them) doesn’t want her mother. Recently widowed, he has a nicer life and a nicer house in Windsor, Ohio, and a daughter, Iris Acton, eighteen years old and an aspiring actress, whose determination to get to Hollywood drives her to enter every local elocution competition with a cash prize. Iris wins them all and caches her winnings in secret places to keep Edgar from stealing them—this is our first indication that Edgar might be more operator at heart than professor. Eventually Eva becomes her half-sister’s new confidante, and Eva’s copy of Little Women becomes their new hiding place for Iris’s prize money. When Iris finally makes her move and runs away to try her luck in Hollywood, Eva goes with her. It’s not long before Iris’s career is wrecked by her exposure as the lesbian lover of a married actress, and Eva and Iris end up banding together with their father, who’s come West, and Francisco, a Hollywood makeup artist.
Amid the paranoia and disruption of World War II, this motley band moves to New York to reinvent themselves as household help to a wealthy Italian family, the Torellis. The story follows the transfiguration of Eva’s new family: Iris falls in love with another married woman, the Torrelli’s cook Reenie, and falsely informs on Reenie’s husband, Gus, who is of German descent; Gus is taken away and interned and later deported. Reenie wants a child, so Iris and Eva more or less abduct a handsome boy named Danny from an orphanage; he is quite agreeable about it. There’s an accident, a bad one. Reenie dies, Iris flees to England, and Eva becomes, for a short time, Iris’s replacement as teacher to the Torelli’s children, while Edgar continues as their butler. The Torellis, a “fairytale family” in Eva’s eyes, are tremendously accommodating, and only when things dissolve completely do they finally let the Acton/Logan servants go.
Reviewing the book soon after its 2014 publication, Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “Ms. Bloom does not write deep-dish, straightforward yarns for readers who enjoy conventional drama. She writes sharp, sparsely beautiful scenes that excitingly defy expectation, and part of the pleasure of reading her is simply keeping up with her.”
This was exactly my experience in embarking on Lucky Us. The scenes are not just “sharp”; they are so packed with cutting lines and boldly drawn images that they imprint on the reader’s memory. Here’s Iris arriving, unsuspecting, to the lesbian orgy that is her Hollywood initiation:
This was a living room the way Cleveland Stadium was a baseball field. Three girls wearing white satin tap pants and white satin court shoes, and no tops, with pink ribbons around their necks and pink bows in their towering white wigs, walked past Iris, offering pigs in blankets and scallops wrapped in bacon. The girls had little mouche marks near their eyes and rouge on the tips of their nipples. Iris followed the two women in the long black dresses past big satin poufs on the floor and the pale-pink satin divans. (“My goodness, those things’ll stain like crazy,” a girl standing behind Iris said.)
And here’s Eva, decades later, a grown woman, confronting her mother, who has relocated and become a celebrated local evangelist—a Chicago version of Aimee Semple McPherson—in a temple with “predictable burgundy curtains and a two-story gilded organ and some kind of crazy gold elves or babies riding silver swans on either side of the stage.” Eva arrives at this overdecorated manse intent on finding out why her mother never came back for her:
I have to say, she looked great. She looked better than me. Her hair was blond now, her brows were still dark, and she didn’t have a line on her face. The gray silky thing she wore did a good job of showing off her assets and covering what looked like a pretty big caboose.
“How could you leave me on that porch,” I said.
“I was 27. I gave you more than enough years, didn’t I, and you know I took good care of you.” And she had. “You seem fine. I wasn’t cut out for teenagers. . . .
It was hard to concentrate on what she was saying, when she looked the way she did, and she kept her voice low and soft. There were seraphim painted on the wall behind her.
I couldn’t ask her anything. There wasn’t a single question to which I’d get the answer I wanted. The wicked people of the world are not supposed to be calm and composed. They are supposed to have hysterics and take poison like Hitler and Goering, or fall on their swords like the Japanese soldiers when they had to surrender. They are not supposed to cross one leg over the other and show off their white stockings and nice ankles.
Perhaps it’s fitting that a psychotherapist should be so attuned to human self-perceptions and transgressions. This is true in Bloom’s most recent books, the historically located novels Away, set in the 1920s, and Lucky Us. It’s true, too, in her early work. In “Bad Form,” Bloom’s first story published in The New Yorker, in 1993, we see the accute and dangerous self-awareness of a woman suffering postpartum rage and loss. The narrator is an English professor embittered because her newborn son has died during delivery. Sleep-deprived, subject to potent dreams and hallucinations, she fantasizes about killing the hospital staff and her husband. When a case worker arrives at her home and urges her to volunteer in a program that connects willing adults with needful child patients, she sees through a “transparent patch” in the case worker’s forehead into her mind, divining the woman’s doubts—or maybe articulating her own doubts about herself. But she accepts the offer, and in the “Hieronymous Bosch Pediatric Purgatory” where she goes to help, she is struck hard, emotionally, by the most unlovable child in the unit—an ugly, disabled boy named Jorge with affective issues so severe that even the most saintly foster families won’t take him. Having decided to adopt him—a decision that will destroy her marriage—she is able to reimagine herself not as wife and mother bereft but as a lovestruck new mother with a son—“Jorge, my little egg, rolling around on our queen-sized bed, the silk spread smooth beneath his skin.”
In Away, a historical quest novel full of startling twists and reboots, the protagonist is Lillian Leyb, another young mother who has lost a child, in the bloody Russian pogrom that also killed her husband and in-laws. Though she searched for her daughter Sophie’s body after the slaughter, she never found her.
She went 10 miles up and down the river, to Turov and away from it, up to her waist in the water . . . as she walked through green-and-brown river weeds, pulling them apart, looking for Sophie. She walked up every path to every farm, and spoke politely to men who looked like the cousins and uncles of the men who had slaughtered her family. In one little village, a collection of six houses, there were Jews who hadn’t even thought of leaving home: a tired old man, waiting for death with his rooster and his scythe and a sharp-faced girl with a shy Christian husband; she had changed her name to Masha overnight and practiced making the cross, looping it like a bow, the entire time Lillian talked to her.
22 years old, widowed, orphaned, and “the mother of a dead child, for which there’s not even a special word, it’s such a terrible thing,” Lillian has nothing more to lose. She immigrates to New York City. Determined and resilient, she goes to a job call and jockeys to catch the eye of the theater owner and his son who are looking for girls to work in the theater costume shop. Her ferocity and selfishness work in her favor:
The two men move through the crowd like gardeners inspecting the flower beds of English estates, like plantation owners on market day. Whatever it is like, Lillian doesn’t care. She will be the flower, the slave, the pretty thing or the despised and necessary thing, as long as she is the thing chosen from among the other things.
When Lillian boldly thrusts herself in front of the men, she is the “thing chosen,” and it launches her into a complicated relationship with wealthy theater owner Reuben Burstein, his hearthrob actor son Meyer, and their tailor friend Yaakov Shimmelman. She has horrific night terrors in which she relives the massacre of her village and the disappearance of Sophie—until one day she learns that Sophie is alive; she was rescued by the Leybs’ neighbors, who fled into Siberia. The news launches Lillian on a quest up through Alaska with the intention of crossing the Bering Strait in search of Sophie. Along the way she’ll be beaten and robbed, rescued by a black prostitute; she’ll be accessory to manslaughter; she’ll spend time in a women’s prison; she’ll be salvation to a family of children in the Alaskan wilderness. She’ll travel up the Yukon with a fugitive man who will change her life permanently. It’s a rough and dirty picaresque journey, driven forward by Lillian’s relentless will. And it’s full of the kind “extreme” occurrences that Leah Hager Cohen noted in her introduction. One might even say that extremity fuels the novel, propels Lillian’s obsession—the chance of her finding Sophie is so slim.
But to be human is to be extreme, often irrational, for love, and Amy Bloom has her finger on that impulse, precisely. Why not adopt a repellent disabled child? Why not dump your adolescent daughter and start over as a blonde, caftan-clad evangelist? Why not run away to Hollywood? Or New York? Or America? Why not go, with nothing to your name and some borrowed men’s clothes, in search of a daughter who is somewhere in the vast expanse of Siberia?
Both Away and Lucky Us are novels about how people alter their identities out of of necessity. Through the course of her pilgrimage to find Sophie, Lillian goes from a young immigrant Russian Jewish woman to mistress of a wealthy entrepreneur to the roommate/“servant” of a black Seattle prostitute to a wandering frontierswoman before finally reaching a point of resolution. Iris Acton of Lucky Us, a character inspired by the early 20th-century lesbian actress Eva LeGallienne, begins as a schoolgirl and has a brief flash as an actress, but must soon transform herself into a governess—a charge for which she has absolutely no qualifications. Eva becomes a psychic; her father, it turns out is a Jew who for most of his life has passed as a Gentile. His girlfriend Clara is a black nightclub performer with vitiligo so severe she must cover the white spots with makeup to confirm her race.
And there are more—many more—instances of characters remaking or concealing themselves. One would expect these quick-changes and deceptions to separate people, but the pleasure of both books is that even as they hide or run away from risky circumstances or bad situations, Bloom’s characters are, unwittingly, moving toward each other. By narrative elipses—Bloom easily leaps over years and mundane details—and occasional authorial sleight of hand, the transformations operate to bring people together and re-form families: A new mother who’s lost a child starts again, claiming a disabled child not her own. A young Russian-American who has lost everyone crosses the country in search of her daughter and (no spoilers here) finds love and a safer home. Two sisters run away to California but get evicted from their new life, and start again in New York, but get separated through tragedy—and start again, and hang on, and lose their father, and one writes to the other, who’s been away across the ocean for years, “Come home,” and the other writes back that she’s on the way.
In an interview with Sydney Lone of Chatelaine, Bloom said, “You can’t really escape your subject, and my subject always seems to be family and love, or just love.” The love in an Amy Bloom fiction is often unconventional, even “extreme,” but because Bloom’s characters don’t pause much to judge or convict themselves, we don’t either. Instead we take them at face value and give credence to what Bloom is showing us: that there’s nothing abnormal about loving intensely.
Evelyn Somers is a fiction writer and the long-time associate editor of the Missouri Review, as well as a freelance book editor of all prose genres, from scholarship to young-adult fiction. Her own fiction has appeared in venues as various as Georgia Review and The Collagist. She lives with her husband and teenagers in central Missouri, in a former apartment house that is the inspiration for her blog Big Strange House. You can follow her on Twitter at@evelynsomers13.
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