336 of 353 people found the following review helpful
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.
129 of 134 people found the following review helpful
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.
81 of 87 people found the following review helpful
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.
66 of 74 people found the following review helpful
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.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
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.
35 of 41 people found the following review helpful
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...
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
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.
29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
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.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2010
Eilis Lacey, the nominal heroine of this book recalls to mind a famous quote from the movie "As Good as it Gets." When Jack Nicholson is asked how he is able to portray women so accurately in his romance novels, he replies "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."
The best literature lets the reader in on the hopes, dreams, and thoughts of its characters. Eilis, however, doesn't appear to have any hopes or dreams of her own. In her village in Ireland, her life is run by her mother, sister, and friends. When an American priest convinces her mother and sister that Eilis' prospects would be better in Brooklyn, the matter is settled without any input from Eilis herself. On the boat over to America, she follows the lead of her cabin mate. Once in Brooklyn, she follows the life set out for her by the priest, her landlady, and her employer. Her only independent act, finding herself a boyfriend, merely results in adding one more person to help run her life.
When circumstances bring her back to Ireland for a visit, she finds that a job and a boyfriend have been arranged for her there, as well. This sets up the book's big dramatic conflict. Will she choose to go back to America or stay in Ireland? Of course, it doesn't much matter, since in either place she will only be pursuing the life planned out for her by others. But as it turns out, Eilis doesn't even get to make this meaningless decision on her own, as once again, circumstances decide for her.
The best literature fully grounds the reader in a particular time and place, but Eilis doesn't seem to be rooted anywhere. Coming to America would for most people be an exciting, life-altering experience, but no Eilis. In America, as in Ireland, her life is taken up mostly by work and school. The few entertainments she pursues, parish dances, trips to the beach, and movies, are exactly the same as those she pursued in Ireland. Although she lives a short subway ride away from one of the great cities of the world, Eilis only goes into Manhattan once, and finds it almost indistinguishable from Brooklyn. She can hardly be blamed, however. In this book, every place appears to be indistinguishable from every other. Although the book is said to be set in 1951, there are only the barest of references to current events (television, her store catering to African American clientele) to let the reader know what era the story is set in.
It's a rare thing for me to read a book and find myself wishing by the end that the protagonist would just get hit by a bus and be put out of her misery, but that's what happened when I read "Brooklyn" Reader, be warned!
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2010
Colm Toibin's Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis, a young woman who escapes a provincial 1950s Irish upbringing and matures in a Brooklyn rooming house. Having grown up during the 50s a half mile from Ebbet's Field, shopping in the Fulton Street area, and attending Brooklyn College, I enjoyed the nostalgic walk around the block. Oddly, the novel felt 100-200 years older than the 50s, almost a manners tale, not Austen or Dickens in quality of character or plot, but somehow reaching for a little of each. Sensible expectations. The novel ambles along as if World War II never happened, with an ocean crossing depiction reminiscent of turn of the previous century nightmares followed by surprisingly little observation of the post-war Brooklyn environment. It is tempting to say that the novel would have made a better short story, or a better longer novel, but my disappointment is probably not related to the length, but to the lack of theme and focus in the narrative. There are no subplots, and fundamentally Eilis' story seems more suitable to 1st person narration. Was the story about breaking away from confining family or place, immigration, evolving realizations, obeying/breaking the rules, betrayal, achieving aspirations, first love, sexual awakening, cultural/religious differences? All of the above, and unfortunately, none of the above.