Author: Colm Toibin
Check this book out on Goodreads.
Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.
Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future. (Source: Goodreads)
Eilis has only ever known the smallness of Enniscorthy, a small town in Ireland, so when he sister arranges passage for her to Brooklyn she’s not sure what her future will hold. In Brooklyn she finds happiness in her work and in her relationship with Italian plumber, Tony, but she also finds sadness in the form of homesickness. When a family tragedy pulls her back to Ireland Eilis isn’t sure what will keep her – Brooklyn or Ireland.
I read this book after having watched the movie, a movie I honestly wasn’t all that impressed with. I wanted this book to have more emotional depth, something I felt the movie lacked, but I don’t know that it really presented anything more than the movie did. In fact the real emotional climax of the movie was totally lacking in this book which left things feeling flat to me. I thought it was a beautifully written book but it really lacked the emotional depth I’d expect from a book about growing up and the immigrant experience.
Eilis’s story to me should present the immigrant experience, her struggle to adapt and adjust to life on the other side of the Atlantic. I did feel that the book did an okay job of that for a while. With Tony’s introduction things obviously change as she begins to enjoy her life in Brooklyn. I definitely felt like her emotional struggle fell to the wayside towards the end of the book. Toibin’s writing is not highly emotional, it is often formal and straightforward, which means that Eilis reads as a bit of a robot rather than someone struggle against homesickness, and the confusing rush of falling in love, and she pressures of her mother. I didn’t get any of this from the book.
I have often heard this book is a coming of age story, which to me means there will be a arc of some sort wherein Eilis would come into her own. I didn’t find that in Brooklyn. Eilis completely lacked agency, even to the very last. Brooklyn was not her decision, sex with Tony was not her’s, marrying Tony was not her’s, even her eventual return to Brooklyn was not that powerful, emotional moment that so aided the movie. Instead of owning her marriage to Tony, and snapping at Miss Kelly, Eilis simply shrugs and thinks she ought to go back to Tony as they’re married and now that Kelly knows, everyone will. There is not agency to any of that. Eilis is a weak character who never goes through that so important arc for both the coming of age and immigrant story.
I didn’t find any of the characters particularly well developed. There’s very little dialogue in the novel so we only really get Eilis’s conjecture about their motives and feelings. Tony was probably the most developed because he’s a very physical character. I thought there was a boyish charm to him, but it’s still hard to really love someone when your lead is to ambivalent and pushed over by them.
I thought the book was really beautifully written. The whole thing is so smooth I could hardly put it down. That’s why the rating is as high as it is on this one, because honestly I had a lot of problems with it. The writing in this book is very beautiful, there’s something captivating about Toibin’s writing, something nearly entrancing about it all, that really just made me wish Toibin had developed better characters and there was something more emotional to the tone of it all. I would have loved this book had there been some emotion behind it but it all felt so dead and lifeless to me.
I do think this book is worth reading, there’s something so enchanting about Toibin’s writing. I think this pairs well for comparison with the film and that together they make something better than just one without the other. I think it’s a beautifully written piece but if you’re looking for a moving coming of age story, with a strong lead this is not for you.