Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

In almost every review I've read of Brooklyn, the same adjectives seem to surface:

Quiet. Gentle. Simple.

Indeed, Brooklyn is all of these, and it is these qualities that make people either love this novel or feel lukewarm towards it.

I'm in the latter camp.

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. Set in the 1950s, it's the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman (probably around 18 or 19) living in Enniscorthy, Ireland with her widowed mother and older sister. Her life is a simple one - until a priest from America visits and encourages Eilis to come to America for work, a prospect that Eilis realizes has been pre-arranged by her sister and mother. Father Flood's parish is one that is home to Irish immigrants and he offers his support to Eilis as she begins to get settled into her new life in Brooklyn.

Which she does - by renting a room in a boardinghouse, working in a department store by day and taking college classes at night, and dating a young man named Tony who falls in love with her (not quite sure if the same is entirely true on Eilis' part). It's all very simple, told in a very straightforward, matter-of-fact way.

I found this to be a little slow going until the second half of the novel. I found myself wanting to read more about the Brooklyn of that time and admiring Eilis' ambition in continuing her college classes. I liked the social issues that Toibin includes in the story - a too friendly coworker, the interactions between Italian and Irish immigrants in the city, the progressive stance of the department store's management as they welcome "coloreds" as customers. But there were unanswered questions that I had - particularly in regards to the character of Tony and some of his behaviors - and there was a plot twist near the end that I didn't see coming and thought could have been interesting if explored in more depth (but maybe that would have meant a whole different story).

The novel picked up its pace at the midpoint, and although I remained interested in the story, I was left feeling distant in regards to Eilis and the conflict that she was presented with didn't make me connect with her any more than I had on page 1. After 260 pages, I felt like I hardly got to know her, that she remained reserved and on guard.

Others have praised Brooklyn for exactly the reasons why it didn't quite work for me. Just like every immigrant's story is a different one, so seems is every reader's perception of Brooklyn.

Like these:
Shelf Love
A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook,
Farm Lane Books
Compulsive Overreader
Bibliophile by the Sea
Caribou's Mom


Sandra said...

Sorry you didn't enjoy it more. I haven't read Toibin myself yet. I hope your nexr book is better for you.

Booksnyc said...

The reviews for this do seem to be split. I am really looking forward to reading it, though. I am a big fan of the author and love immigrant fiction. My Mom is reading this one now and then it will be mine!

thanks for the review

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Sandra - That's sweet of you to say! I read this at the very end of 2009 (literally ... I was reading it at 11:39 p.m on New Years Eve). The next book after that was FABULOUS - "The Financial Lives of the Poets," which will be one of my top books for 2010.

Booksnyc - I'll be eager to hear what you think of it! (and let us know what your mom thinks, too ... maybe a mom-daughter review? Would actually be apropos for "Brooklyn." Think about it.