Reading Brooklyn was an unusual experience. Why? Because I had to read the whole book to appreciate it and be gripped by it. The book was like an embryo--rudimentary, unborn. But when I read the last paragraph, I actually got a spine chill. And, later, after shelving it, my thoughts wandered back to the story with a deeper pleasure.
For the first 100 (or more) pages, nothing much happens. Young provincial Irish girl Eilis Lacey travels to America(circa 1950), leaving her sister and mother in the Irish berg. She improves her education, her appearance, and refines her tastes. With the help of a family friend (a priest), Eilis finds a place to live in a rooming house and a tedious job in a clothing shop. She encounters new friends, (all rather shallow), meets a man, has a courtship. It is all very mundane. When she lies in bed after receiving a letter from home, she actually thinks about her mother or sister taking out the envelope, what kind of envelope, how many envelopes. I was exasperated at that point.
Yet I kept reading. Toibin is a competent writer, and I was at least partially engaged, although I remained skeptical of any interesting story emerging. You know how some authors fail to maintain control over their story and characters? Well, Toibin has perhaps too MUCH control. That is how it seemed as I was reading. It plodded along, but rather lightly. I did like Eilis and cared what happened to her, but I wanted something imaginative or inventive to occur. At least one splashy thing. But when something dramatic happened in the last 100 pages, it didn't really affect me too much. It seemed more of a vehicle for other action to take place, for Eilis to enter into decisive conflict and change.
It is so subtle and restrained that I almost didn't know when I became fully engaged. During the last portion of the book, I was in suspense, wondering what would happen, but speculating that it would be predictable.
Full resolution occurs in the final moments. That last paragraph was a titanic moment for me. It undid all my former expectations with its bittersweet irony and unpredictable ending. My three-star rating went up to four-stars. I finished this quick novel in two sittings, but the impact really begins at the end and continues to foment even after you are finished.
Don't give up on it even though it seems that nothing is happening. The whole is better than the sum of its parts--the end was arresting, even astonishing.
Brief summary, no spoilers:
There are no explosions in this book. There are no murders, car chases, scenes with international espionage, or anything that would require its movie rendition to have special effects.
Instead, this beautifully written story is about a young girl named Eilis Lacey, who lives with her mother and with her attractive, vivacious sister Rose in a small town in Ireland. The time period is the 1950s. Eilis is smart and good with numbers but there is not much employment opportunity where she lives, so a priest with connections in both Ireland and New York gets her both boarding and a job in Brooklyn.
Needless to say, Eilis has to learn to live in a new culture and away from the only home she's ever known. Everything is so strange and new, but soon she meets a sweet young man named Tony and suddenly she begins to adjust and flourish.
This is the story of a young, immigrant girl learning to deal with change and adversity and how this makes her grow both intellectually and emotionally. It's also about dealing with disparate cultures, and having your heart and soul divided. Just what is "home?"
That this novel is written by a man is truly stunning - because Eilis comes alive from these pages and her thoughts and reactions generally rang true.
I also want to add that I could not stop reading towards the end because I just had to find out how this was all going to be resolved. And let's just say that this would make a very good novel for book clubs - there are going to be lots of different opinions on the denouement.
My only quibbles? I had trouble with the male characters, especially Tony. In many ways he didn't seem real to me, and if anything, too idealized. In many ways I wish this novel had been longer, and the relationships and personalities had been fleshed out more.
This is difficult to say without a spoiler, so I'll be careful not to - but as stunning as the ending is, I'm not sure it felt right to me. But then again, I'm not Eilis, I didn't grow up with her experiences, and maybe that's the whole point. (Hence, part of why this would be a good book for any book clubs.)
But I do highly recommend this book. Colm Toibin is one of my favorite writers, and he just writes beautifully.
on July 3, 2009
Spare, beautiful writing gives this novel three stars. But the story itself is so lacking in depth, with unrealized characters. Eilis, the protaganist, offers so much potential for the author to plumb the history of the immigrant -- their myriad reasons for coming here, the struggles to make it, the ties to their home country.
Instead, life basically happens to this girl, with no real effort or participation of her own. She doesn't desire to come to America but it's conveniently planned out for her (including a job and home for when she arrives), she doesn't fall in love but rather comes to accept the love of another. I kept waiting for her to grow into and express her own intentions, to make her own decisions, but alas, even the ending is simply an acceptance of circumstances.
There were several tangential characters (sister Rose, the department store manager, the professor) who pique interest. I would have enjoyed learning more about them, and their stories could have elevated this passive, unfulfilling journey.
on April 30, 2009
Colm Toibin enters William Trevor territory with this lovely novel about an Irish immigrant's move to Brooklyn in post-World War II America. In spare unhurried prose he covers her experience with the departure from her limited world, a nightmarish crossing, learning to deal with a new job, night school, her boarding house acquaintances and new love.
Those looking for a speedy read will be frustrated by the measured pace of the incidents as well as their unremarkable nature. But in dwelling on the quotidian Toibin evokes an all enveloping reality of time and place and character.
Relationships aren't distorted for melodramatic ends as in "The Blackwater Lightship", nor is the book as moving or as intellectually and emotionally satisfying as his masterpiece "The Master". But this is as good an example of a writer's craft in creating a lived-in reality of small engrossing lives as one can find.
In the immigrant novel there are certain expected devices, and going back and forth is not usually one of them. Not when they are set in the 50's anyway. In this tale the immigrant, a young Irish woman, Eilis Lacey, does go back, and forth. Living out other people's dreams for her, the disjointed nature of Eilis's life is painfully felt both in both places.
She has beaux in America and Ireland, and while much of the plot involves her relationships with these men, I found her relationship to her own life more interesting, her inability to claim authority and responsibility for her own life from the church, the mother, the charming older sister. She allowed herself, her desires, and her place on earth to be perpetually defined by others.
I found myself shouting at the book toward the end, I was so upset with Eilis's lack of willingness to disrupt the flow of events... it rarely happens that I find myself irritated with a character to the point of yelling at a book. Hence the 5 stars; any book that gets me raving is doing its job.
Having been married to an Irish person I know how strong and overbearing social pressure and expectation can be. I am glad that the life I lead avoids much of it, but this novel gave me some empathy for those who live under it.
Did you ever get a book that you really wanted to like, but found yourself slowly pulling away from it the further that you read? This was the case for me with Colm Toibin's Brooklyn: A Novel.
And it's even worse when you hate giving the works of an author a bad review.
Had read many of the major newspaper reviews of this book prior to ordering it, and felt that it would be an interesting read. One reviewer had made a positive allusion to George Eliot's classic Silas Marner while describing a passage, and another called it "hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking." I was looking forward to reading this book for the personal reasons of having been born in Brooklyn and having a smattering of Irish family background.
Maybe it's me, but this book just didn't live up to my expectations. Even worse, the book is so flat in its style that it just kept putting me to sleep. This may be a personal thing, but one that I rarely encounter in most books today.
The plot is simple enough, and I'm outlining here: a young Irish woman named Eilis Lacey leaves Ireland for Brooklyn in the 1950s for a better economic opportunity. One there, an Irish priest finds a sales position for her in a department store, and helps her find a room with an older Irish lady, one who takes in young female borders.
The priest helps her get into Brooklyn College night school in order for her to get certification in bookkeeping and secure a better paying position. She meets and is courted by a young Italian man, and when things seem to be going well for Eilis, a family tragedy happens in Ireland, forcing her to return. Without turning this into a spoiler, a series of events take place which force her to make a critical decision.
My problem with this book is that I found the tale to be monotonous and flat. Eilis seemed quite impassive, and she seemed to only be able to react the decisions of others, and not her own. The more that I read, the more disappointed I became, and it became a harder book to even finish towards the end. As noted earlier, it may be a personal thing, but this one left me wishing that the characters, especially Eilis, had been better developed... more three-dimensional.
The laudatory reviews of Colm Toibin's latest offering are surprising to this reader, and I'll have to think twice or thumb through a library copy before I try to tackle another of this author's books again.
Calling it a 3-star book is the best that I can do with it.
on September 19, 2009
This book hooked me right away; however, the more I read, the less I liked it. Eilis, the main character, seems to sleepwalk through life, unaware of or unconcerned by the ramifications of both her actions and her inactions! By the end of the book, her thoughtlessness and lack of honor had negated any empathy I might have had for her.
The author, Colm Tóibín, never achieves what one editorial review claims -- ... "a renewed understanding that to emigrate is to become a foreigner in two places at once." Nor does he evoke what the Washington Post review "the deep homesickness..." of Irish immigrants. Frankly, the main character, Eilis, never seems to care that much about home or Brooklyn. She seems to simply let things happen rather than accept responsibility and take action. Her lack of concern for everyone in her life -- family, friends, boy friends, employers, landlord, priest -- is appalling.
A great disappointment...
on March 9, 2010
Many reviewers have ably summarized the basic plot and themes of this book and I will not do so again. I will say only that I sat down to read it about 11:30 one night, thinking I would read a handful of pages and fall asleep. To my chagrin, it was 3 a.m. when I finally put it down, completed. I could not stop reading until I found out what happened.
But Brooklyn is not a page turner in any conventional sense: There are no murders, literary pyrotechnics, sinister albino monks, seductive vampires, etc. The only mystery here is the mystery of the human heart, and that was enough to keep me glued to the pages. Colm Toibin's extremely subtle manner of telling a story -- he seems more to just get out of the way and let the story be told, something that looks effortless but is quite the reverse -- is an accomplishment that becomes more impressive with each page.
Since reading The Master I have thought that Toibin is among the best writers alive today, and Brooklyn only confirms me in this belief.
Having read and loved Colm Toibin's THE MASTER, (if you're enamored of Henry James, you should sample it) I was delighted when our library fiction book group selected this book about an Irish immigrant moving to Brooklyn. Toibin is a first-rate writer. In this book he sets up an interesting dilemma. What if you were an immigrant and after coming to America, you returned for a visit to your home town to find a charmed life awaiting. All the stars were aligned for you. You are now polished, educated, sophisticated and wanted by your townspeople, even the dashing local suitor.
But, in the meantime, you realize you have changed. America, with its sprawling splendor and opportunity for growth beckons you. Your hometown seems a tad provincial after America and there is an American suitor waiting for you there. But it's home and comfortable! And it's still a struggle back in America, to fit in and to prosper.
Which would you choose? And why?
This may have been a dilemma that many immigrants faced in the 1950's and even today. The riches and promise of America vs. the allure of home, the familiar, the quaintness and security of your own culture and country.
What I loved about this book, is that the author represented America and its acceptance of and help for immigrants as overwhelmingly positive. We read about what is corrupt and tawdry about our country, this book reminds us of what is positive. I kept waiting for the heroine to be exploited or the priest to be corrupt, as seems to occur in so many modern novels. We're continually reminded of the sordid nature of our culture. So, it was refreshing to be reminded of what is good and decent about America and its treatment of many immigrants. This is a genuinely upbeat book which is a welcome change for book groups.
The author set up an interesting dilemma that would be enjoyable for book groups to discuss. Which fate would you choose? And did the heroine make the best choice for her?
Our book group relished this book and the insight it offered into the 1950's immigrant experience.
on May 20, 2009
This was a pleasant enough story, the kind your immigrant mother or grandmother might tell in her waning years, with the caveat that all turned out well in the end. Only, like the stories Grandma tells, it lacked the depth and tension to hold my interest for the length of a novel.
Having not read any of Colm Toibin's other works, which appear to have been prize-worthy, I can't comment on whether the shortfall here had to do with attempting to write from a female POV. Certainly other writers have managed that quite well, but here Toibin seems only to skim the surface. Events happen, but feelings about them are not explored in depth. At times the novel is peopled with various characters, none of whom, besides main character Eilis, we ever get to know, and I didn't feel I even knew her character all that well.
To me this novel was filled with missed opportunities. For example, though touched on slightly, the author seemed to have no knowledge of the deep rivalry between Italian and Irish immigrants. That Tony's mother accepted Eilis so easily--or at least it seems that way for, again, this isn't covered in depth--seems unlikely. Also, did Tony or any of his brothers fight in WWII? Some of them must have, but that never comes up. Except for the last few pages, the novel totally lacks tension, and instead goes on, page after page, with nothing more than everyday things, like going to work, going to school, going home.
Certainly this was pleasant enough, and I can't say I disliked it, but I didn't really like it either, and I'd have difficulty recommending it.