My fabulous book club kicked off 2016 by discussing Colm Tóibín‘s award winning novel Brooklyn. After our Christmas hiatus, we all enjoy getting back together for some yummy food, wine and great conversation.
Tóibín‘s novel, the story of Eilis Lacey’s coming-of-age in 1950’s Ireland and Brooklyn, NY, was a lovely way to start our new reading year, even if we didn’t all agree about the book’s merits.
Eilis is (I think – it’s never explicitly stated) a young woman in her early twenties who lives with her widowed mother and thirty-year-old sister, Rose. Rose is glamorous and independent. Times are tough in Eilis’s little town and so when an old friend of the family, Father Flood, arrives home for a visit from America and suggests he could help Eilis find work there, and perhaps further opportunities to improve her life, it’s decided that she make the journey across the Atlantic to settle in Brooklyn. Eilis’s story is actually quite common for the time period; however, one has to venture a little further back to fully understand the Irish immigration to America.
At Time.com, “Irish-American historian and novelist Peter Quinn explains, “The country wasn’t in the Second World War, it had been kind of cut off from the rest of the world, and it wasn’t part of the Marshall Plan. So it was still a very rural country.” The economy was at a standstill, while the U.S. was booming. Some 50,000 immigrants left Ireland for America in the ’50s, about a quarter of them settling in New York.
Women played an important role in that immigration process. Quinn explains “during the 19th century, the wave of Irish was “the only immigration where there were a majority of women.” And, thanks to a culture that supported nuns and teachers, those women were often able to delay marriage and look for jobs. By the mid 20th century, many Irish women—who also benefited from the ability to speak English—were working in supermarkets, utility companies, restaurants and, like Eilis, department stores. The fact that Eilis finds her job through her priest is also typical. “[The Catholic Church] was an employment agency. It was the great transatlantic organization,” Quinn says. “If you came from Ireland, everything seemed different, but the church didn’t. It was a comfort that way, and it was a connection.””
So here is Eilis, alone in the big city. Whether you like her or not (I’m sort of in the “indifferent” camp), Eilis’s story is certainly compelling. She begins a job at Bartocci’s, a department story run by Italians. Her goal is to make her way through the ranks and end up, hopefully, as a bookkeeper in the office, rather than a shop girl. Father Flood arranges for her to take a bookkeeping course at Brooklyn College. She’s a diligent and conscientious worker.
She lives in a boarding house run by an Irish lady called Mrs. Kehoe. She shares living space with a variety of other young women, some Irish, some American. We learn very little about any of them; Eilis tends to keep to herself.
And there you have it – Eilis in Brooklyn. Oh…then she meets Tony.
Eilis slowly became aware of a young man looking at her. He was smiling warmly, amused at her efforts to learn the dance steps. He was not much taller than she was, but looked strong, with blonde hair and clear blue eyes. He seemed to think there was something funny happening as he swayed to the music.
It’s almost impossible not to like Tony and his family. He courts her and they fall in love, but then personal tragedy strikes and Eilis has to return to Ireland.
Brooklyn does have something to say about the choices we make in life and why we make them – sometimes, it seems, we aren’t really sure; we’re just swept along by the tide. Some readers might be put off with the way ideas/characters/themes are introduced and then dropped without resolution. While it’s true that life often happens in this manner, I might have enjoyed just a teensy more follow-through.
Tóibín‘s prose is straight-forward, unembellished and allows his reader to fill in the gaps. Many readers will likely take issue with the novel’s conclusion, but I liked it – even if I didn’t particularly like Eilis.