Well, I fully expected to like "Away," but I didn't. I couldn't buy the fact that the protagonist would just "set off" searching for her daughter the way she would with little to no preparation, for one thing. And she really couldn't have survived. It was just too incredible for me, but I, too, would like for someone to decipher that last paragraph.
I'll take a stab at explaining the last paragraph. After telling us what has happened to Sophie, and then about Lillian and John's life together, and growing old together, Bloom returns us to the present: Lillian is, finally, ready to give up. She looks for a place to lie down and, presumably, die. The leaves rustle in front of her, and she sees John's hand emerging from among them, followed, of course, by the rest of him! (We already know they find each other and make a life together, so we know she doesn't die--nor does he.) It's a wonderful touch that John's hand is the first thing she sees, while her husband Osip's severed hand is one of her recurrent (bad) dreams. We've come full circle, in a way: She's found a new husband for life.
I actually didn't have a hard time with that, as it didn't seem much different from her leaving Russia for the States in the first place. Three of my four grandparents emigrated to the US, one of my grandmothers from Russia, at about the same age Lillian was in the book. I did some research several years ago online at the Ellis Island site and found that she went from Odessa to England and then on to New York...in those days before planes, with no money, no papers, no clothes...and also the victim of pogroms, as was Lillian...it boggles my mind to think of how she did that. So the fact that Lillian did it as well, and then tried to reverse her steps, was not farfetched to me at all.
I also had a hard time with the last paragraph, however, but I'm glad to see that someone offered what I think is a reasonable explanation.
I have a different take on the last paragraph--I think Lillian is finding Bishop's dead body under the leaves. All the "tidy ending" stories for the characters are the stories Lillian makes up to enable her to leave the past behind so that she has the strength to move on to the next leg of her journey toward Sophie. They relate to her earlier observation that the story you tell is quite different from the ugly truth that sticks to your underside like tar. The "stories" come in a mad rush at the end of the book as Lillian's brain creates fictions to protect her fragile mental state from the absorbing the reality of Bishop's dead body. It will be the last straw for Lillian and I expect, like Yaakov, she will give up her fight to survive (not knowing that she is only 5 miles from where she started).
I was just discussing this book with my sister and we had very different images of the ending. I too, think that the "tidy" summaries of both Sophie's and Lillian's lives were in her imagination. I think that seeing John's hand as she is dying is a sort of comfort to her. Remember, she fell into the water, in Alaska, lost all of her belongings, and was freezing cold. A person wouldn't survive longer than a few minutes in those conditions. But, I guess we'll never know...
I too was confused by the last paragraph and logged on to see if others had also been mystified. Glad I wasn't the only one. I thought that maybe I'd missed something big or just been too prosaic in my thinking. Thanks for the thought provoking hypothesis about it. What do you think the title means? "Away" from home? "Away" from what?
After reading interviews with the author, we now know that the "tidy endings" are factual and given to us by the omniscient narrator, the "God's eye," who does know what happened.
I'm leaning towards Shulamit's opinions, especially after relating Bishop's hand to Osip's severed hand. Looking forward to finding out what others in my local book discussion group think this coming Tuesday! This last paragraph has really bothered me. :-)
Since there were so many tidy endings, including the fact that they grew old together . the next step would have to be that one of them died.In one of the last paragraphs there was a description of how Lillian could see the luminescence of of John's hair in the Birches even when it turned gray. As she went through the birches looking for John, she was reliving the despair because she did not see John. She had to part the birches and almost swim in. Then she saw John's hand as she had seen Osip's hand. I think that she had finally had lost John to a natural death. It was a sense of completion that had to be created in our minds rather than being told by the omniscient narrator.