You don’t really know much about a writer after reading just one book. A single book can be a one-time inspiration, a learning experience the writer will soon top, a good idea that didn’t pan out as the writer hoped, or a so-so idea that struck the right nerve at the right moment to become a good read. Anything can happen.
I’ve now read two Amy Bloom books and am getting to know her better. The first, Away, traces the journey of a young woman’s search for her daughter, the only possible survivor, besides the narrator herself, of a violent pogrom back in their native Russia. Like Away, Bloom’s new book, Lucky Us, is packed with characters and storyline shifts. Asked to assign it to a genre, I’d describe it as serious picaresque. Both books are messy and unpredictable. In Bloom’s hands, both of these are good things.
Neither book is particularly long – Away is a shade under 250 pages, Lucky Us just 234 – but Bloom can move a story like a locomotive, and this alone makes reading her a worthwhile lesson for writers like me whose natural inclination is to give the back story, in all its permutations, back to Adam and Eve before advancing the plot.
The most impressive thing about Bloom’s writing, however, is her ability to create memorable characters in a few deft brushstrokes. This isn’t easy. I have read reams of critically acclaimed novels whose characters I can’t remember at all. This seems to be a particular problem in contemporary fiction. Who, after all, forgets Emma Bovary or Hester Prynne? Heathcliff or Captain Ahab? But ask me about any character worth remembering in Joyce Carol Oates or Nadine Gordimer and you’ll hear crickets chirping. It sometimes seems a perverse point of pride among the literati to thin characters to the point of erasure.
Tolstoy was a master of creating characters in tight spaces, sometimes creating them in a few lines, then dismissing them forever. Bloom works in the same vein, transforming her slim book into a lush, fully-populated sphere. Minor characters, in their brief moments on stage, live as vividly as major ones; major characters are built up brush stroke by brush stroke, so our view of them is constantly amplified. It is much the same with Bloom’s settings, especially the fleeting ones, and beyond the main locales, Bloom gives us sharply carved tableaux of Hollywood in the 1930s and the life of a deportee in Hitler’s Germany.
As I read Lucky Us, I tried to imagine synopsizing the plot as a proposal for a yet-to-be-written book and trying to get an editor to bid it based on plot alone. Yeah, so? the editor would say. Yeah, so, in this case it’s the getting there that matters, and the characters you meet along the way.
Jury of One: Would I read this book again? Yes, and am reserving the ones I haven’t read yet.