Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Eilis Lacey is a young woman living in 1950’s Ireland, and though she’s happy living at home with her mother and older sister, the opportunities for advancement in her small town are very scarce. When Eilis’ older sister wrangles passage for her to America, Eilis is at first unsure and frightened, but later begins to anticipate a great adventure to be played out overseas. But the new life Eilis steps into is very different than the one she thought she would have, and between her scrabbling between a job working behind the counter of a department store and her night classes in accounting, Eilis is not sure she made the right choice. Along the way, Eilis garners a few new friends, like Father Flood, the priest who sponsored her trip to America and who also hosts a weekly dance for the Irish youth of the city; and a handsome young man named Tony who will make Eilis question whether her place is in America with him or back with her family in Ireland. In this quiet and subtle tale of an immigrant’s foray from the home of her birth to the bustling and busy streets of New York, Toibin shares the triumphs and heartbreaks of Eilis Lacey, a girl from across the ocean who wishes to someday have it all.

This was a very quiet book. From the first descriptions of Eilis’ life in Ireland and her winnowing prospects, there was a subtlety and gentleness to the writing that was at first alien to me. I’m sort of used to immigrant stories being full of emotion and bustle, and this one was a distinctly quieter affair. Part of this may have had something to do with the fact that I listened to the audio version of this title, and narrator Kristen Potter’s voice and vocal inflections were very smooth and subdued. I really think the mixture of the vocal talent and the stylistic features of the book is what made it feel like a very calm read.

Eilis is the kind of character that’s immediately easy to relate to. She’s kind and solicitous of her family, especially of her mother and sister whom she lives with. Though she has an internal drive to become independent, there’s an element of dependency in her that is fostered by her living arrangements and her inability to secure a good career for herself. During the beginning of the book, I was very intrigued by the portrayal of small town Ireland and the way the community seemed so clannish at times. Though Eilis finds work in the general store, her employer is a woman who doesn’t respect her and treats her rather shabbily. Because of her lack of skill, this seems to be the best that she can do, and her prospects are very limited if she chooses to remain in Ireland with her family. It was clear to me that changes needed to be made if Eilis was ever to find her way in the world, and I rejoiced when her sister arranged for Eilis to live, work and study in New York. As she prepares to leave home, Eilis is excited but reluctant to leave her world behind, and her mixed emotions surrounding her new adventure really rang true to me.

Her adventure begins the moment Eilis boards the ship that will take her to America, and all of her changing circumstances are met with a wide-eyed wonder and a willing spirit. She makes some very different kinds of acquaintances on the boat and finds herself marveling over the different values and lives that the other passengers lead. When she arrives in New York, Eilis becomes a border at Mrs. Kelly’s house, where there are a number of other girls who are working in New York and trying to start new and independent lives. A few of these girls were rather catty and mean, and Eilis struggled to separate herself from their grasping and gossiping ways while also ingratiating herself with them so she didn’t have to be without allies. Though there was a lot going on at the boardinghouse, Eilis had to work hard to rise above, especially when she became a favorite of her landlady, a relationship the other borders begrudged her for. As Eilis begins to work at the department store and take night classes, she discovers that there’s still a tense push and pull to life that she can’t escape, no matter where she resides.

The central conflict in this novel, I felt, was the relationship between Eilis and Tony, a young Italian-American man who tries desperately to sweep the level-headed girl off of her feet. Tony has grand plans for his relationship with Eilis, and though I never got the feeling he was taking advantage of her, he could be emotionally pushy in a way that held a curious mix of solicitousness. Through their entire relationship, Eilis struggles with her feelings for Tony and wonders if she’s making the right choice by tying herself to him. Toibin writes about this conflict in Eilis’ heart with frankness and immediacy that I not only appreciated, but admired. Eilis comes alive in the pondering of her heart and soul, and comes to see her relationship with Tony as something she’s slightly unsure of, regardless of his love for her. I wasn’t happy with her eventual show-stopping decision though, and felt that the ending was a bit forced and that Toibin went in an unnatural direction in his conclusion.

I had a very nice experience listening to this book but the ending somewhat diminished my satisfaction of the whole. While there weren’t a great amount of plot elements winding their way through the narrative, what was there was cohesive and believable. I would be curious about perhaps one day experiencing this book in print, as I’m interested in whether or not I would still consider it a quiet book if seen in a different shade of media. Those readers who love immigrant tales and coming of age tales would do well to grab this book, but when you reach the conclusion, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

24 comments:

Jules said...

I also found this to be a quite book, but it seems you enjoyed it a lot more than I did. I couldn't relate to Eilish at all and I couldn't stand Tony. I also really disliked the ending. I read this book for a read-a-long, and we all felt the same way about the book as a whole, thanks for bring in a new perspective.

Kathy said...

Nice review. I generally like immigrant stories but I'm not sure about this one.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Totally agree with you on this one. I love immigrant stories, and I liked her, but I almost threw the book at the end.

Audra said...

Oh no -- I've got this on my TBR after someone (you?) recommended it to me -- but I am so sensitive about endings that I might drop this on the list so I don't go mad. :/ Otherwise, it sounds amazing!!

Darlene said...

I've had this book on my shelf for ages. You know I like quiet stories and anything taking place in Ireland so I'll probably like it.

Ti said...

I can't imagine what it would feel like to leave a small town, on a ship to a big, bustling city. It would be so overwhelming.

I'm so sorry that ending didn't go the way you expected it to. I know it must be a doozy if Sandy wanted to throw it across the room.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've also read elsewhere that this book was disappointing in some ways. I appreciate your thoughtful review of it!

Meghan said...

I actually really liked this book - but I don't remember what I felt about the ending! And I didn't mention it in my review, so I obviously didn't mind that much. I loved the quiet feel of it - my favourite books are almost invariably the understated quiet ones. I'm sorry you didn't have quite the same experience!

reviewsbylola said...

I loved this book. I was strangely relieved by the ending. Most of the book I spent urging her to follow her heart but in the end I had very strong feeling about what she should do.

Jenny said...

Itartes reading this once but never got far (not even to when he went to America). Sounds like it I something that I would like though I'll have to beware the ending lol.

bermudaonion said...

I do love immigrant stories, but I'm a little leery of that one after reading that you didn't love the ending.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I think I would really enjoy this one. I love immigrant struggles that showcase the struggles of coming to a new country. Great review!

Aarti said...

I think I would inevitably compare this book with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and it seems very unlikely that this one would win out over that one, so probably won't be reading this any time soon. I do like quiet books, though, and I think you captured the tone of this one really well.

Anita said...

I picked this up at a store when it was new and read just a bit, and added to my long list. Not sure I'll ever get to it, but I do enjoy stories of immigrants and a coming of age tale.

Vasilly said...

I bought this book recently and your review of it makes me want to read it even more. Great review.

Aths said...

I love the sound of this book. Immigrant stories draw me in, but I wonder if the unnatural ending will bother me too. Even otherwise, this sounds wonderful and I can understand Eilis struggling with her feelings for Tony. Fabulous review!

Mystica said...

I like the bit of it being a quiet book. I like immigrant stories mainly I think because my three children have become immigrants! they will definitely have stories to tell their children some day. This book should be for me.

TheBookGirl said...

This book has been recommended to me by a few people - but no one has ever alluded to the ending.

I wonder how this one compares to Ellis Island, given the similarity of subject...

Kailana said...

I have to admit I have avoided this book because it is getting so many mixed reviews...

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I've heard mixed reviews on this one as well. While I'm a fan of a "quiet book" every now and again, I need the contemplative aspects to be thorough and "finish" a little bit more. An open ending just won't do it for me with these sorts of stories, but I might check it out anyway since I do adore immigrant stories.

nomadreader said...

Oh dear. I've been meaning to read this one since it came out, but I've developed a particular aversion to unsatisfying endings lately. It's still one I want to read, but it may take me awhile to get to it. Great review!

Jenners said...

I always wonder how i would handle being an immigrant. I somehow suspect that I would do very poorly.

Wonderful reivew (as always) but I'm pretty sure this isn't my type of book.

joanna said...

I didn't like the ending either - I think my over-romantic self wanted a happier resolution! I blame Hollywood. :-)

Lenore Appelhans said...

I like the idea of a book titled Brooklyn, but I guess I better not listen to the audio book since the narrator's soothing tones would put me right to sleep. I haven't had the best luck with audio ...

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