Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

Toibin is one of my book club's favorite authors. We've read The Master and before that The Heather Blazing which I picked up in a used tools and books sale in a small town in England. We are impressed with his versatility, but what we really love is his ability to pack so much meaning and emotion into a single scene, a single gesture. We selected his most recent novel for October, a safe choice I thought until I read it. Then I feared that this unassuming story of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to the U.S. in the 1950s would not provide much fodder for discussion. However, it prompted one of our liveliest and most sustained discussions.

Eilis Lacey lives in a small town with her widowed mother and older sister Rose. At 30, the lovely and self-confident Rose works as a bookkeeper at a local mill and plays golf with her many friends. Eilis herself is taking accounting courses and is obviously quite smart but held back by the limited employment opportunities in town. Rose conspires with Father Flood, visiting from New York, to arrange for transportation, lodging and a job in Brooklyn for her younger sister. Faced with leaving her home and friends and the life she has always assumed she would have, Eilis is miserable but complies.

This setup for her life in the New World contains what I saw as the main flaws in the book. First, whenever the slightest hint of a problem or conflict arises, a solution immediately presents itself. Second, everyone, even people who don't know her, go out of their way to help her: the priest, her cabinmate on the ship, her landlady in New York. Third, Eilis herself seems passive, allowing other people to make the major decisions in her life, not just Rose, but her boyfriend in New York, her supervisor, Father Flood.

Many in the book club loved the story, one saying that it was the kind of book she used to read, that made her love reading: a linear narrative with one point of view and a slow pace. “No bling” as she put it. He lets the story tell itself. It's true that we've read a number of more or less successful experimental novels lately. However, I disagree with my friend. I think that in spite of its traditional format, Brooklyn is a very experimental novel. It seems to me that Toibin has challenged himself to write about an ordinary young woman leading a life that—outside of her journey to America—is remarkably uneventful, and still make it an interesting, readable story. He succeeds. One person mentioned that nowadays when authors are steeped in Chekhov, we expect every plot point to be significant, but life isn't like that.

Others in the book club talked about how much they liked Eilis. She has a moral compass which gives her strength in spite of her apparent passivity. She is not judgmental in a time when people in the U.S. were very judgmental. She stays true to herself and does the right thing, such as taking a new boarder to the dance. One person suggested that her apparent passivity is really just the way life has of turning you one way or another. A different person pointed out that most of the people in this book don't actually talk to each other; they don't say the important things. Eilis doesn't tell her mother and Rose that she wants to stay. Rose doesn't share her own plans and problems with Eilis. Choosing not to talk about things was only too common in those pre-let-it-all-hang-out days.

Where I most felt a hole in the book was the lack of conflict. Whenever a difficulty arises, such as a locked bathroom door, someone provides a solution. Gifts fall into Eilis's lap: the first man she meets turns out to be Mr. Right; his family loves her even though they are not Irish; all potential roadblocks dissolve. Conflicts that could have generated entire books in themselves—integrating the store where she works, a suggestion of sexual harassment—are no big deal and immediately dropped. Everybody loves her. Is it really possible to have so charmed a life?

Without conflict a character doesn't change, and indeed while her outward appearance changes, Eilis is the same person at the end as in the beginning. So why did everyone like the book so much? It is a good read; Toibin's marvelous prose made me want to read just one more paragraph, one more chapter. We like spending time with Eilis. One of our members, an emigrant herself, talked of how true to life the description of the emigrant experience is, particularly the way when you are in one world, you have no connection with the other world. The slower pace and lack of big scenes made us more aware of subtle successes, such as a scene in a bookstore where Eilis is overwhelmed by the number of books, and the brilliant, understated portrayal of the first two women of color to enter the store. Middle-aged, glamorous, wearing cream-colored woolen coats, they chat with each other, never looking directly at the salespeople. They have the same self-sufficient dignity and integrity that Eilis has.

Toibin still manages to create tension, even without apparent conflicts. The unspoken truths add tension. Also, at any moment her life could go either way. I guess I was the only one who was a bit disappointed, but I applaud Toibin's accomplishment. The book is loving portrayal of a person and a time, all the rough edges smoothed away, nostalgic without being sentimental.

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