Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
March 2, 2010
Scribner; 272 Pages
From the book cover:
“One of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary literature” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind. Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.
From my point of view:
What makes a good book? What is it that appeals to me and makes me want to keep reading late into the night? I'd have to say believable characters, dialog that flows easily and settings that tantalize all of my senses by immersing me in a world beyond my dining room. I venture to say that there are plenty of you out there just like me who look to books as a sense of adventure and escape from everyday.
Colm Toibin's novel Brooklyn (or maybe it's a novella) delivers all of these things and them some. A fantastic accomplishment considering the simplicity of the story. But I suppose that is what sets it apart. It is a story of family and relationships that doesn't rely on bad behavior, bad language and explicit sexual encounters.
Set in the early 1950's young Eilis, who lives in a small town in Ireland with her mother and older sister, is surprised to find herself with the opportunity to travel to America. I feel like the book cover description is misleading. It seemed to me like she was uncertain if she should go and ultimately chose to accept the offer of sponsorship more out of duty and responsibility than because she was anxious to go to America. Also, she was assured of both employment and housing. Given what I came to know about her in the beginning of the book I can't imagine that she would have set off on her own on such a journey without the assurance of a decent job and a safe, appropriate room to rent.
Eilis is a wonderful protagonist. She is innocent and trusting, and while she may also be naive she has an inherent wisdom that allows her to handle potentially challenging situations with a fair amount of confidence. Her sister Rose is a great influence on her and when facing something new she often asks herself, "What would Rose do?" and models her behavior accordingly.
I read a few reviews where readers thought that the story moved too slowly or didn't have enough action. I'm going to disagree. I enjoyed experiencing the trip to America, the job at the department store, living away from home in a boarding house and of course meeting a boy as Eilis did. I think that Mr. Toibin did a great job of capturing her emotions and uncertainties. While I do concede that there isn't a lot of action per say, I don't think the book suffers because of it. This is the story of a young girl becoming a woman. It is a story of family and relationships. It is a simple story that beautifully demonstrates how complicated our feelings are and how our lives are impacted by them.
I'm always drawn to books (and movies) that are set in the 1950s. There's so much about this period that appeals to me. The importance of family, the positive morals possessed by many , the prosperity and security felt as a nation, the abundance of opportunities, and of course the clothes and hair-dos! I was absorbed into the details that defined Eilis' daily life. I could picture every aspect from dinner with the other boarders, to her walk to work, the nylon counter at Bartocci's and her first trip into Manhattan.
When Eilis meets Tony there are no sparks. It's not love at first sight. How unusual! (Honestly, how many books have you read where the main character and her love interest fall head over heals the first time they see each other??) I wasn't sure what to expect which made me want to know what happens even more!. I was captivated as Eilis experienced the emotions, questions, insecurities and delights of a first love.
Some folks may have thought the book had a slow start, but I think most agree that as it neared the conclusion it became impossible to put down. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll leave you with this...
I was charmed by this story. After I finished I found myself thinking about Eilis and they way that things turned out. Which doesn't happen often. Usually I'm onto the next book, sometimes even in the same sitting. This is one that will stay with me.
Click on the video to hear the author read a selection from "Brooklyn"
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