“One of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary literature” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), 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.
On the surface, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín is a typical American Dream narrative. A young immigrant woman comes to America, where hard work and a kind heart earn her a job, an education, and a man. However, the novel is hardly a fairy tale. It explores a myriad of complex and conflicting emotions: the anxiety of moving to a new country, the bravery required to stand on one’s own two feet, the embarrassment and humility of making mistakes, and the fear of hurting loved ones. Eilis grapples with these as she continually struggles to find her way through a whirlwind of others’ expectations.
My biggest frustration in the novel was with how Eilis vacillated on pretty much everything. At nearly every point, she seemed to be following a script that someone else had written for her life. I never truly felt convinced that she wanted to do what she did. As a reader, I wanted so badly to see her grow into a strong, independent woman with a mind of her own! It was incredibly frustrating to see her fall short time after time. And yet, Eilis’s inability to make decisions for herself, and the fact that this was never resolved, made her seem real to me.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with this book. I saw the movie ages ago when it came out, so I went into it knowing the plot, but I was impressed with how well Tóibín wrote multi-faceted characters. He did a phenomenal job of presenting the anxieties I imagine are common to anyone moving to a new country, especially in a time when long distance travel and communication are difficult. I enjoyed Eilis’s emotional complexities, even when frustrating, and I appreciated the nuances of Tóibín’s exploration of anxiety versus reality.