Brooklyn

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Our second blogger’s book club choice, Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, was one chosen by me. It had been lying unread around the house since Christmas, so I was glad to be able to finally read it with my critical book club eye. I do find that having to write this review makes me pay more attention and read with a more critical eye, and that has enhanced the enjoyment of the past two books for me.

Brooklyn has received mixed reviews from the public – some hailing it as a masterpiece of writing, and others finding something of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome about it, finding it flat and boring.  I even read a comment from someone who said it was very like a Maeve Binchy novel, and said that there would not have been the fuss created around it, if Binchy had written it. While I see how this commentator could say this in terms of the plot – young innocent 50s girl making her way in the world –   but  Tóibín’s gentle, thoughtful prose is far removed from Binchy’s style.

The story of Brooklyn concerns a young girl,  Eilis Lacey, who lives with her widowed mother and her elder, attractive, lively sister Rose in 50s Ireland. Eilis is smart; she studies bookkeeping and longs for a good clerical post and smarter clothes like Rose’s, but the best on offer is a Sunday job in Miss Kelly’s grocery shop. The character of Miss Kelly and her shop was skilfully executed by Toibin.

Eilis’s escape comes in the form of another job offer: this time on the other side of the Atlantic. Father Flood, back visiting his hometown after emigrating to the United States, sees her potential and encouraged by Rose, promises to find her work and lodgings in Brooklyn. Eilis herself has no desire  to quit her home, her friends, her familiar surroundings, assuming she would marry and have her own family in her home town.  But she submits to what her mother and sister expect of her, all the while feeling “that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.”

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 – learning to deal with a new job, night school, her boarding house acquaintances and new love, but slowly she begins to adjust and flourish. The descriptions of Eilis’ homesickness and sense of rupture at the start of her stay in Brooklyn was very powerful and Tóibín knows how to capture this beautifully.

The denouement..well.. it will be interesting to see what my fellow bloggers think of it!  I think it may divide opinion. I am not sure myself what I thought of it, except that it is very provocative and left me wanting more. I had that what happens next feeling when I closed the book and started imagining what would’ve happened to Eilis when she returned to Brooklyn, mapping out her life in my imagination, reflecting on how very different her life would have been had she made the other choice. It also made me reflect a little on my own life and the choices I have made, and how choices we make can alter the course of our lives. So for me the full impact of the novel really hit me at the end and those last few lines left a haunting bittersweet memory behind.

While it is not as stunning a novel as his masterpiece, The Master, which was an enthralling read, and my first introduction to Toibin, I  enjoyed this book immensely.  I loved the measured gentle unhurried pace, the gentle story-telling quality to the writing, the way in which Tóibín evokes time and place and character so skilfully. This quiet little gem of a book still continues to haunt me in a similar way to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which it reminded me of in tone and style and the way in which just one choice or action changes the course of our lives forever.

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14 responses »

  1. I found the character of Eilis very unlikeable. In fact, I didn’t like any of the characters, but I do agree that it was very well written.

  2. Great review Marie. You were very balanced in your commendations and criticisms. I haven’t read ‘The Master’. Now I might after your review. I’ve read ‘On Chesil Beach’ and can see the comparison. You’re right to ponder how decisions can so alter the course of lives.

  3. I agree with Lily, you were very balanced with your review Marie. I wasn’t fussed on the book at all when I was reading it, but now that I’m reading the other reviews I am realising that there were sections that did stick with me.

  4. Hi Marie, you were wondering what I thought of the ending, well to be honest it was a pretty good ending. I don’t think she was really in love with either man and I believe that ultimately she would have a better life in America so it was for the best that she go, also it was what Rose wanted for her. Her mother would have taken over her life if she had come home to Ireland. I would like the book to have gone a little bit further in the story and showed how she got on with Tony when she got back to the states

  5. Hi Marian, yes, once again I agree with you 🙂 I was left wondering what happens next for her and Tony..though I imagine she pretty much settles down and plays the submissive wife…

  6. I’m with Shauna and Magnumlady, I alternated between dislike and like for Eilis throughout the whole book. At the end of the book, I still wasn’t sure how I felt about her. As for the story as a whole, I did enjoy it (not enough to read it again though). Good review!

  7. Great review Marie – you captured my feelings on this book very well as did many of your commentators

  8. Really enjoyed your review Marie, as well as everyone’s. I really must read The Master now. I like your points re how choices can change your life, and how if Eilis hadn’t married Tony before she returned to Ireland, she probably would have stayed and married Jim – so a very different life awaits her. This is something I often wonder in relation to my own life – if we had stayed in England 8 years ago, how different would our lives have been in terms of career and perhaps the number of children we have.
    I too have read On Chesil Beach and agree with you re how they both resonate.

  9. Hi, agree with you the ending was much better than the middle or beginning, however I think I am on the side of the Emperor’s new clothes overall with this book. It’s clear his sparse language was making us think about the choices we have to make, but in the silence too many decisions are made. I think I will need to read The Master to really tell if I like Colm’s style or not.

  10. I agree with you about the end of the novel. I didn’t find the book great, to be honest, but I did find myself dwelling on things at the end. I find myself dreading to think what her life with Tony is going to be like back in America (marrying, giving up work, having kids), although I wonder will her new office job bring her out of herself and more assertive. So many questions!

    I would like to read something else by Tóibín. I was going to read The Blackwater Lightship but I think now, after reading your post, I’ll start with The Master.

  11. I didn’t enjoy the book when I read it last year, but I am looking at it through fresh eyes now, having read these comments.

  12. Marie, I’m adding a comment to all BBC members blogs to say that our June book is ‘The Children’s Book’ by A.S. Byatt to post on the first Sunday in July. Our next book then is ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver. Enjoy reading.

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