Eilis Lacey is unable to find a job in Ireland in the years following World War II. An Irish priest from Brooklyn, New York offers to sponser her to live an work in America, so she decides she must go leaving her mother and sister behind. She adapts to her new life by working in a department store and the pain of parting has subsided until she receives devastating news from home that threatens the promise of her future.
The heroine, Eilis, does not seem remarkable at all, at least initially, but through her experiences of pain and love, we come to see her as a fully rounded personality, with her own hopes and aspirations. One could easily dismiss her story as inconsequential, but that would be foolish. It is, after all, the little, seemingly inconsequential events that make up a life. And Eilis does experience monumental events in her own life, even if they do not seem so monumental to an indifferent observer.
Tóibín handles Eilis’s burgeoning character expertly, especially when he describes her return to Ireland after a tragedy at home. The way he handles this tragedy, and its effects on Eilis and her family, together with a secret that Eilis has kept from her family, is truly masterly. He sets up tension without resorting to any outlandish tricks, making Eilis’s situation seem all the more universal. The book left me feeling sad at the seeming determinism of our lives, but also hopeful that we do have the ability to choose, whether for good or ill. That may seem somewhat trite, but any fiction that makes one consider your own choices in life seems, to me, to be doing something right.
I found Tóibín’s unadorned style refreshing, but a bit anaemic at times. That sounds a bit contradictory, but what I am trying to say is that I enjoyed the purity of the prose, but I wanted a bit more red meat. I tend to prefer a more descriptive style of writing – not necessarily purple patches, but cross-hatched colouring. Perhaps the argument could be made that this style fits the nature of the story. Or perhaps this is just the way Tóibín always writes. Either way, this is not really a criticism, just a preference.
On the whole, a beautifully understated book, which I recommended for anyone who likes thoughtful literature. I will definitely be reading more of Colm Tóibín.
Brooklyn is the story of immigration, the newcomer whose longing for home is almost unbearable, the next generation, aware of the past but eager to make a future and the uneasy mingling of diverse cultures on the streets of New York just after WWII.
Colm Toibin's voice is quiet and measured but perfectly describes Eilis's strong emotions. His descriptions of mid-century New York and Ireland are vivid and alive. An excellent, excellent book..
Following my purposely slow reading of [Lark and Termite], this book [Brooklyn: A Novel] was another slow, soulful read.
It is also quite riveting, and my hat is off to Toibin for his brilliant ability to convey the feelings and experiences of being: female, an emigrant from Ireland, inexperienced in the ways of the world, in a romantic love relationship for the first time, a cog in the wheel of a capitalistic commerce system, a resident of boarding houses, and a student taking college classes in a city/country very different in many, many ways from her small town of birth.
This book carried me along on a swirling, gliding current of emotion and connection/isolation/dislocation. Toibin definitely succeeded with this one, IMHO.
Haven't read the other nominations on the Booker long list, but I completely understand why this one is included therein.
If you like the Slow Food movement, where freshness and nuance count toward a mingling of delicious flavors in the mouth ... you might enjoy [Brooklyn: A Novel] for the melding of the characters, story and experiences of the protagonist. It is still quietly simmering in my brain after several days.
Five stars. I recommend this book to the readers who enjoy seeking out and reading something that goes far deeper than the surface and the superficial.
This was a most enjoyable read and although it has a very gentle tone it is powerful storytelling.
Eilis Lacey has just finished vocational school, and she has a knack for figures. She helps out in a small shop in Enniscorthy, Ireland. Eilis lives with her mother and older sister Rose. Unfortunately, she cannot find a permanent job in her town, so when a priest visits the Laceys, Rose tells him about Eilis’ plight. He offers to get her emigration papers for America, with a promise of a job and a room in a respectable boarding house. Eilis seems unsure, but she knows her options are limited, so she decides to take the plunge and leave the Olde Sod for the new world.
“New” is quite an understatement for Eilis. She finds herself on her own for the first time in a strange and wonderful land. She adapts well to her land lady, Mrs. Kehoe, and her roommates, who take her dancing. She makes new friends, and gets along well in her position as a counter girl at a department store. Set in the early 50s, she has all the innocence and sense of peace and happiness of that decade. A short bout of homesickness hardly slows her down at all.
Unlike some of his other work, Tóibín does not delve into the dark underside of life and its difficulties here. Rather, his warm prose weaves a serene tale of life in rural Ireland and Brooklyn, NY. Eilis matures quickly, and develops a relationship with young man she meets at a dance.
Tony is a gentleman in every sense of the word. On page 148, the first negative thing happens to Eilis. While walking Eilis home from her night classes, he spins a tale of American Baseball and his love for a particular team. Tóibín writes, “’You know what I really want ?’ he asked. ‘I want our kids to be Dodger fans.’ He was so pleased and excited at the idea, she thought, that he did not notice her face freezing.” Eilis was shocked at the speed Tony has pushed the relationship. As she does throughout the novel, Eilis turns the situation over and over in her mind, figuring from every angle how she should respond. When she does confront Tony, she does so perfectly. He understands and backs off.
The best thing about Tóibín’s novels, however, is what can only be described as lovely prose. Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit, leaving a distraught Tony behind. Eilis thinks of him often, but doesn’t tell anyone. Tóibín writes, “not telling her mother or her friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as though she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew” (226).
Don’t mistake this novel for a romance. It is a sensitive and detailed portrait of a young woman coming of age and dealing with many changes in her life. Will she go back to Tony? Or stay with Jim Farrell in Enniscorthy? I won’t tell. You will have to float through this beautiful novel to find out. 5 stars.
The idea of "home" is one of the main themes in this book - is home where you live? where your family is? does it ever really change? Eilis' struggle to start again in America causes her to grapple with just where she fits in this world. Toibin's writing is clear and dynamic, and his characterization of Eilis was spot on. I always appreciate an author who can create well-drawn characters of the opposite sex, and Toibin excels here.
Unfortunately, the ending left me wanting. Brooklyn ends with a resolution of sorts, but not enough of one to satisfy me. I needed more of Eilis' story, more of the repercussions of her decisions, just more. I guess this wanting is a compliment to Toibin, as he definitely kept me interested, but at only 260 pages, Brooklyn should have been longer.
That said, I am glad that my foray into the Longlist has introduced me to another author, and I plan on reading more of Toibin's oeuvre.
Even before emigrating, Eilis is an observer – a good one. Some might complain about the lack of dramatic events and a focus on small details, but this establishes Eilis’ character and concerns – she often notes what people wear, how her clothes compare, if she is acting correctly and not standing out in every situation. She doesn’t just observe but collects these memories to tell her sister, Rose, (and possibly her mother), as she has always done, though it is hard in her new life with rushed, impersonal letters. Eilis is concerned with propriety but not prim and she is amenable and looks to please. These qualities make her kind and tolerant – she is less concerned about race and class than her housemates, for example. However, they also make her malleable, forgetful and willing to go along with what others want from her which leads to some unkind behavior at the end (though some creaky plot developments also help).
The synopsis makes it seem that the story is one mostly of thwarted love, but this is something of a misdirection. The book spends enough time on her life in Ireland with her needy mother and capable sister and leisurely follows her life in Brooklyn – settling in, job woes, personal conflicts – before she finds love. I also liked that fact that not everything mentioned was significant, just a part of life – for example, we don’t get all the details of her boyfriend’s previous girlfriend or a man that she notices during a Christmas dinner. I thought it was very well done and enjoyed the book immensely – wanted more at the end – but I could see that if someone wants something a bit more dramatic, they might not enjoy it.
Yes, it's quite a girly book, but who cares - it has pace, warmth, and loveable characters, and certainly tugs at your heart strings.
It's surprising that this book is written by a man, as he so successfully gives real womanly insight to the character of Eilis and the other women in the book. He achieved something special in that he had me really behind the big decision the character made at one point, and then equally rooting for her when she seemed to have a change of heart. To me that is just proof of wonderful writing - I was right inside the main character's head, feeling the mixed emotions with her.
This is a great beach read. If you haven't got to it yet, but it on your reading list for your next vacation.
Unashamedly 5 stars.
This novel is a look back in time to the 1950’s, both in Ireland and in New York. It’s a glimpse of a world gone by, but not forgotten. The finest feature of this story is its portrayal of the immigrant experience. The author lets no feeling go unexplored as Eilis becomes acquainted with new people, a different environment, and the twin challenges of employment and further education. One cannot help but be fascinated by Eilis’s story and root for an easy transition and absorption into a brand new culture.
I really wanted to love this book, but it just seemed oversimplified. I think virtually anyone could have thought up the plot if they were given the basic elements (girl alone in big city, first real job, meeting new people, family crisis). In fact, at one point it felt like an After School Special.
While Toibin depicts the female brain very well in some areas, there are other things that don't ring true. For example, other than her work and classes, the main character seems to have no curiousity about the world in general, or about the exciting new country she has come to. In subjects such as racism and the Holocaust, not only does she know nothing but she has no interest in learning more. And while we hear much of her thoughts, some subjects she doesn't even visit mentally: when her female boss makes a sexual pass at her, she feels uncomfortable but never ponders it again. Yet she ponders so much more trivial stuff all the time throughout the book (what to wear or where to eat)
Additionally, while there are some tragic events, overall there doesn't seem to be enough conflict to make the story interesting. All the other characters are almost too good to be true, some crusty or cranky but all of them (excepting Miss Kelly) are big hearted and generous. Money is never really an issue, and things go amazingly smooth for such a huge life change. Again, that seems incredibly unrealistic. And the strange behavior of her fiance's moodiness, her mother's unpleasantness, and her landlady's suspicions are never really explored.
I intend to read more of his work (I have ordered the Blackwater Lightship) and I hope things become a bit more complex and realistic.
I was prepared to give this beautifully written book a 5 star rating until the last 50 pages or so. I really can't discuss my disappointments without making it a spoiler in this review, but I felt that some of the decisions might not have been consistent with the ones the girl I'd come to know in the novel would have made. In the end, I settled on 4 stars. I will be looking for other books by Toibin in the future.
This novel obviously deals with the theme of immigration. Toibin does an excellent job of depicting the life of an immigrant as one caught between two worlds. As Eilis tries to assimilate into life in Brooklyn, she also aches for the familiarity of her home and family in Ireland. In this quote, the Eilis's homesickness is palpable:
"She had been keeping the thought of home out of her mind, letting it come to her only when she wrote or received letters or when she woke from a dream in which her mother or father or Rose . . . appeared. She thought it strange that the mere sensation of savouring the prospect of something could make her think for a while that it must be the prospect of home."
And when she returns to Ireland, she finds she doesn't as easily fit there as she would have hoped:
"She had put no thought into what it would be like to come home because she had expected that it would be easy; she had longed so much for the familiarity of these rooms that she had presumed that she would be happy and relieved to step back into them, but, instead, on this first morning, all she could do was count the days before she went back."
As the daughter of immigrants with a grandmother who returned "home" to Scotland twice only to realize as much as she didn't feel settled in NY, she also no longer belonged back home, the loss of belonging and home experienced by immigrants resonates for me. Toibin's spare, bleak style only makes this loss that much more poignant in Brooklyn.
I am a fan of Toibin's work and Brooklyn is no exception - it is moving in a very quiet way and stays with you after you read the last page.
Having said all that, and noting that Tóibín is a careful, skilled, and economical writer, I can't really say I enjoyed "Brooklyn" all that much. The book's third-person narration doesn't have a whole lot of indirect in it, and while it's well-written and well constructed, this one is slower and more deliberate than it could have been. It constructs its characters well, but I can't say I ever felt them breathe. This may simply be due to my own preferences and tastes: perhaps readers who prefer nineteenth century literature will be able to sense the interiority that didn't really come through for me. Prospective readers should also be warned that "Brooklyn" is one of those novels, like, say, "Mrs. Dalloway", where nothing much happens. This isn't to say that life-altering decisions aren't taken or that Tóibín's characters don't grow or change, but the book's scope -- like its setting -- sometimes seems painfully constricted. I can't quite imagine how they managed to make a movie out of it. This is an admirable book in many ways, but it's really not my thing. It could be yours, though.
Perhaps to say that her blossom does not hybridize with her surroundings is erroneous; rather, we might say we are altered in the same sun as she, drinking the same newness of place and peoples and earth, moving at such a pace that the changes that actually do unfold - a slight change in petal color and fragrance - are so natural and unhurried that it is not until a return trip to her home of Enniscorthy that the comparative growth can be witnessed.
Mayhap too contributing to this obnubilated sense of change is the knowledge that Eilis did not seek out this uprooting relocation to Brooklyn. Her sense of order and the path of her life never enfolded a replanting in America; indeed, her Enniscorthy roots were quite well grounded, entwined with her mother's and her friends', not seeking out new ground like a free-wheeling and voracious nettle. Yet, new ground Eilis was given, and part of the beauty of this book comes at the very end, when her choices are arrayed before her, not so dissimilar in isolation, yet contextually divergent, like a rose graft taken from its home and grown in different terroir.
Behind the friendship with Eilis that Tóibín elicits from me there is also a sense of historicity that nudges me on a deeply personal level. When Eilis meets and begins an affectionate courtship with the boyish Italian-American Tony, I felt recalled to the stories that my grandparents told of their own courtship, as if I was reading a more inclusive narrative from one of them, reliving with them the sensations and joys they would have experienced.
That Tóibín crafts a patient and tender maturation for Eilis, compelling and believable without treading within angst, and the sense of familial remembrance he evokes left me rather awed and with a lingering feeling of peace, like I'd just put my nose in a rose bloom and inhaled deeply, forgetful of the thorns that usually await, but, finding none, return to inhale once more.
Set in the 1950s is the story of Eilis, a young woman from rural Ireland, who moves to Brooklyn in search of opportunities that are not available to her back home. While she suffers minor setbacks along the way (bitchy housemates, homesickness and a gloriously vomity scene on board ship) she is successful in making a life for herself in the USA. It got me thinking how sometimes you don’t need a catalogue of disasters to make a book enjoyable. I liked the way things went generally well for Eilis as she is a likeable character, one I could sympathise with, and someone who always tries to do the right thing. On the other hand, when things go swimmingly there is always the suspicion that when a disaster comes it will be a very big one. So it proves here.
The book is instructive as to the morals of the day, and when these morals are combined with a Catholic upbringing, and a network of all-seeing relatives and acquaintances, the effects are seen to be suffocating.
The story ended earlier than I was expecting. There are several clues dropped by the author in the later stages which help the reader work out what happens after the text stops, though I’m inclined to think not knowing might be better.
There are universal life traps in America as in Ireland that restrict freedom and opportunity for women. Abandoning one set of expectations for another, Eilis comes to the realization of her inevitable lost independence in both countries. Freedom and determination are undermined by love and regret regardless of setting.
The perfect structure and simple and direct style is consistent and seamless from start to finish. I did not want the story to end.
I must say I am a little puzzled by the title. The novel gives a strong picture of the times, the working place, the role of the Irish community and the church, but Brooklyn is not the main focus, almost a main character - or is it? It is a promise of a better life that does not turn out that good in the end, not for a young girl without any means or experience, and a background that has taught her to do as she is told and not fuss much.
Although Brooklyn is a slow, quiet novel, and it took me a while to get into, in the end I loved this book. Toibin has a great way of capturing the everyday details of life and making them poignant and often beautiful. Nothing extraordinary happens in this book, but Eilis does have to make a huge decision that will alter the course of her entire life. The way Toibin presents this choice feels authentic without being overwrought, which is what makes this novel so good. In the end I was sad to see this novel finish, and I wished I could glimpse just a bit more of Eilis' world.
The novel also does a suburb job of capturing the attitudes and prejudices of first and second generation immigrants in Brooklyn in the 1950s. The changes that are about to fundamentally change America are beginning to take route, and Toibin addresses them quietly, as subtle changes in the everyday lives of his characters. Toibin's attention to these issues made the novel feel very authentic, and added to its quiet charm.
Spoiler alert here, okay? -- The settings - both post-war Ireland and the borough of Brooklyn - are beautifully and realistically rendered, along with all of the melting-pot immigrant ambience of Brooklyn and the Jackie Robinson-era Dodgers, as well as the far-reaching influence of the Catholic Church on both sides of the Atlantic in those times. I enjoyed the book immensely, but only up to a certain point, i.e. Part Four. Then, because Toibin is so very good at portraying character, I began to slowly dislike his heroine more and more. And I didn't like her bereft and scheming mother any better. Like I said, this is a woman's book. I admire great writing, but I am still a guy. Guys hate weak, faithless women. I won't say any more. I don't wanna completely spoil things, although this book has been around for a couple years now and sold countless copies and spawned hundreds of reviews and reactions.
I was so upset by the last part of this book I almost gave it only 4 stars - I even thought about a 3-star rating. But what the hell. This Toibin guy can really write. If he can create a character real enough to hate, well, I'll say it again. This guy can write. All this having been said, I wonder if there will be a sequel. He could probably write a good one. And women would eat it up. I'd probably be tempted to read it myself. Or not.
Indeed it is the absence of saying anything about anything important that is probably the salient impression I take from the novel. Real issues are never discussed openly by the main characters or sometimes not at all. We Irish are masters at skirting the subject, dropping hints, making snide comments, raising an eyebrow to deliver a message but rarely are we ones for coming out in the open, addressing an issue up-front. We are certainly better than we were but the old ways of buttoned-up silent emotions that Tóibín lays out brilliantly remains our default stance.
What is exceptional about the main character Eilís Lacey is that she is endowed with heightened intuition for a young woman of her age and time. She can see into and beyond what people say to what they are thinking and feeling and her capacity for discernment is breathtaking. Her poise and manner set her apart but her inability to freely express her own inner emotions eventually is her undoing.
Denial runs through these pages as a leitmotif. Eilís's recently dead father is hardly mentioned, the harrowing feelings of everyone concerned at her departure for America (including her own) and other later events are never expressed, tears are shed in private, major issues are avoided or left to simmer, letters are written without crucial content, joy, love, ecstasy are barely acknowledged. Tóibín has illustrated an innate Irish ethnic trait in the most subtle yet damming way - by slowly and painstakingly unearthing its essence while never actually naming it. He learned his manners well in Enniscorthy.
The other themes of the book for me are emigration and women. The experience of a houseful of Irish emigrants in Brooklyn is brilliantly portrayed but it could be mirrored by similar groups in any part of England at the time, except for the particular constraints imposed by the distance from home. Lack of education meant limited opportunity and the Irish tended to huddle together for support and comfort. The beneficent influence of the Catholic Church gets its due as a bulwark of strength in a somewhat hostile environment. What is absent is any sense of frustration, anger or betrayal that this should be the lot of these young people - deserted by a nation pledged to cherish them. And that too is authentic. It is only in recent times that Irish people have moved beyond mute acceptance of forced mass emigration and started to ask the why questions.
Apart from Fr Flood who helps Eilís in Brooklyn there is hardly another major male character. Tóibín has a sub-plot here as well I suspect. In the official Ireland of government, news, church, and commerce it was only men who were seen or heard. Women were confined behind the lace curtains but that did not diminish their power exercised in ways that men neither understood nor felt. This is a hymn of praise to Irish women of that era who did not merely suffer in silence but rose above it to act with dignity, sense, courage and humility as beautifully revealed in the portraits of Eilís, her mother and her sister Rose. For accuracy sake the narrow mindedness and cruelty of other women is there too in Mrs Kelly and Mrs Kehoe but their parts merely serve to highlight the heroism of the Lacey women. Like many mothers and daughters of their time duty was what counted - knowing it and doing it come what may--and never letting the side down.
The book left me with much to remember and much to regret. As I wallowed in the nostalgia Tóibín craftily created I began to become uneasy and a sense of foreboding accompanied every page turn. As Eilís got happier I become more alert, more aware of impending doom. In that older Ireland joy was not just fleeting it was distrusted and discouraged. "You'll soon get your comeuppance me boyo!" And just on cue Tóibín brought me down to earth--but bless him--he didn't leave me totally devastated at the end.