Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin.
Later, during the week, as she was making her way from Bartocci's to Brooklyn College, she forgot what she was looking forward to; sometimes she actually believed that she was looking forward to thinking about home, letting images of home roam freely in her mind, but it came to her now with a jolt that, no, the feeling she had was only about Friday night and being collected from the house by a man she had met and going to the dance with him in the hall, knowing that he would be walking her back to Mrs. Kehoe's afterwards. 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 or the rooms of the house on Friary Street or the streets of the town had appeared. She thought it was strange that the mere sensation of savoring the prospect of something could make her think for a while that it must be the prospect of home. - from Brooklyn, page 137 -
Eilis Lacey is a young Irish girl who is on the cusp of womanhood in the years following World War II. When her mother and sister Rose arrange to have an Irish priest sponsor Eilis in America, Eilis boards a boat to New York and finds work in a department store in Brooklyn. She lives in a boarding house owned by an Irish woman named Mrs. Kehoe and eventually begins to take classes in bookkeeping at Brooklyn College. Despite early homesickness, Eilis begins to find her way in her new country. When she meets a handsome Italian man named Tony, her world expands even further. But an unexpected family crisis back in Ireland leaves her with a difficult decision: should she give up her new life in Brooklyn, or pursue her dreams with the man she loves?
Brooklyn is a sleepy and meandering book whose plot is wrapped around the internal struggles of Eilis. Toibin's prose is uncomplicated and manages to capture the feel of life in New York City during the mid-twentieth century. Eilis comes from a traditional Irish Catholic family and is expected to find work in an office until she can marry a nice Irish boy. Her growth into a young woman as she falls in love with Tony provides the drama for the novel. The novel's tension is created through Eilis' inner conflict between returning to Ireland and living the life her mother wishes her to live, versus remaining in America where she will create her own destiny.
This book was named Best Book of 2009 by several respected publications like The New Yorker, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Daily Telegraph. It was also long listed for the Booker Prize in 2009. Given all the accolades, I wanted to love this novel. But I found myself increasingly annoyed by Eilis and her thoughts and dilemmas. I never related to her struggles and I found the pace of the story to be very slow. I believe a large part of my dissatisfaction with Brooklyn was that I did not love the primary character of Eilis, nor many of the more minor characters such as the petty girls with whom Eilis shares a boarding house. One relationship which the reader is supposed to care deeply about is that between Eilis and her sister Rose -- but instead of feeling invested in their relationship, I felt removed from it.
A couple of years ago, I read a previous novel by Toibin. The Blackwater Lightship was also a slowly evolving novel about the idea of returning "home" ... but in that novel, I ended up feeling largely satisfied with not only the character development but the way Toibin structured the story (read my review).
The best part of Brooklyn for me was when Eilis meets Tony and begins a relationship with him. Tony felt real to me and I especially liked how Toibin captured Dodger fever in Brooklyn. As the game unfolds around her at Dodger Stadium, Eilis finds herself lost in the rules of an American game she has never experienced, but nonetheless drawn to the excitement around her.
She simply could not follow the game, could make no sense of how you would score, or what constituted a good hit or a bad one. Nor could she work out which player was which. And it was as slow as Patty and Diana had said it would be. She knew, however, that she should not go to the bathroom because it was possible that the very moment she announced her departure would be the moment no one wanted to miss. - from Brooklyn, page 172 -
Another aspect of the novel I found interesting was how Toibin weaves in the multiple racial and ethnic communities. None of the groups seem to co-mingle, although their paths cross, which makes it surprising (and more scandalous) when Eilis and Tony come together. The novel show how immigrants to America at this time in history created their own home away from home by isolating themselves from immigrants of other countries ... the Italians remained with the Italians, the Irish with the Irish, etc ... even when it came to where they worshiped.
Brooklyn is a quiet novel. This is not the book you want to pick up if you are seeking a fast paced plot or earth shattering revelations. This is a novel about an immigrant's assimilation and coming of age in New York City, but it is largely told through the internal conflict of the main character. Readers who enjoy understated literary novels, might want to give Brooklyn a try.
Three and a half stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".
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