Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Book Review: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I adored the movie made from this book, and then I sought out the book. It didn't hurt that I was moving back to the New York region at that time, (to New Jersey, not to Brooklyn, but still) and I could very much identify with Eilis's loss and confusion and loneliness. As always, the book expanded on the movie, bring out nuances and detail.

Eilis lives with her mother and older sister in Ireland in a small town. She gets a job at a local shop one day a week, but jobs are hard to come by. Her sister has a good job at a factory as a bookkeeper, and that and their father's pension are just enough to get by, but no more. So her sister arranges through their priest and a priest friend of his in America, for Eilis to emigrate. She lives in a boarding house in Brooklyn with other young women, mostly Irish, and has a job at a department store. She is depressed at first, but when she goes to the priest and tell him, he enrolls her in night classes for accounting, which helps, and then at a local dance one night she meets a young Italian-American man, which helps even more. Eventually, she starts to feel like she belong here, and she and her American boyfriend decide to marry. Then, suddenly, her sister dies. Eilis has to go back to Ireland, and despite her ties in Brooklyn, finds it hard to leave. Reading the book,  was glad I already knew what she decided in the end, because that decision tore at me. I was rooting for her to come back to America, but I wasn't really sure if she would. I do find it fascinating that Mr. Tóibín has said he was inspired to write this novel by Jane Austen and he wanted to write about a young woman coming into herself as an individual and making her own decisions. Eilis certainly goes through a slow, subtle transformation from letting things happen to her, to finally taking agency for her own decisions and for the direction of her life. She seems like she's not always on board with it--of course we all at times would prefer if someone else would just make all the decisions for us, and it is so gratifying when she doesn't give in to inertia and instead does take her life in her hands, even if her decisions are only life changing to her and a couple of other people. Like Jane Austen, Mr. Tóibín here has created a microcosm of the world, where Eilis's decisions are everything, and her life is the whole world, as she is Everywoman. Don't get me wrong--she's a fully-developed three-dimensional character, but at the same time, she is very much representational and at least for me, it was so easy to slip into her shoes, feel her feelings, see life through her eyes. I am not an Irish immigrant in the 1950s, but I've been new to New York and I've felt how a city so large can also be so small, and how you can never be as alone as you are surrounded by millions who don't care. This book was beautiful and exquisite and I wish I could read it again and again and yet have each time be like the first time. It's probably one of the best books I've ever read.

I bought this book at The Book Rack, the used bookstore in Charlotte, NC.

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