Review: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

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Goodreads description: Hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking, Colm Tóibín’s sixth novel, Brooklyn, is set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, when one young woman crosses the ocean to make a new life for herself.

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 — to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood “just like Ireland” — 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 with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.

Eilis is torn. She does not want to go to America to begin with, but deep down, she understands that her sister Rose, the charismatic, intelligent and beautiful rose, arranged a new life for her and this life is supposed to be better. Eilis, however, does not haste to make it so. She spends the most of her first five months in the United States being homesick and willingly locking herself inside a friendless, lonely existence and thinking what if she stayed in Ireland. Her small-town life wasn’t alluring or entertaining, and yet Eilis longs for something she can’t quite grasp.

Life in a new country is stressful and hard. Adaptation does not always go smoothly. Gradually, Eilis starts to open up, she meets Tony and falls in love, starting to get a sense of belonging in Brooklyn. Then, disaster strikes.

“It made her feel strangely as though she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew.” Almost seven years abroad on my own made me learn one thing, living somewhere else changes you, makes you stronger, makes you grow, but Eilis’s behavior upon her return to Ireland, namely dating another man, keeping her marriage secret, delaying her return for two weeks without even bothering to call Tony or her bosses, her thoughts about her feelings for Tony… All of these elements have showcased that, a year later, Eilis is still a girl that does not know who she is as a person and her actions back home feel like a sort of betrayal of the life Rose would have wanted for her sister. Emotionally she simply remains all-over-the-place, and while Brooklyn is, in some ways, resonant, relatable and touching, it ultimately is a book about a main character that could not get her mind together for over a year. There is some sympathy and liking for the main character, but the ending left too little space for respect.

There are several characters that, towards the end of the book, I started to dislike quite intensely. First, there’s Eilis’s brother Jack, who writes that she should drop everything in America and head back home, because her mother can’t be alone and they are supposed to head back to work in England. Then comes the mother herself, who thinks that Eilis’s new life in Brooklyn is seemingly so worthless, that she starts plotting to have her stay in Ireland without even asking questions about her new American life. Finally, there’s Eilis herself, the Irish chapters at the end of the book turned my opinion negative.

It would certainly be interesting to see how the adaptation of the novel would turn out, especially considering that I liked Brooklyn overall, even though I do have major complains about the main character growth. Overall grade: 4

Huge thanks to Penguin Books UK and NetGalley for offering Brooklyn ARC.

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