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!