Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin
Posted on March 20, 2010
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I was a bit cranky about this spring’s One Book One Chicago pick because it was just published last year. Meaning the used book stores didn’t have it around. But seriously, this particular book club never fails.
Brooklyn is about a young lady in post-war Ireland whose elder sister rather steamrolls her into taking an opportunity to emigrate to the states. Eilis lands in Brooklyn with a perfectly respectable job, in a perfectly respectable boarding house, going to night school and building a life for herself. Even though she is dumbfounded as to why she was chosen to go and is homesick like crazy.
She meets Mr. Wonderful, who is actually wonderful. There is a moment when it becomes clear that he wants to marry her and she can’t commit to it. On one hand, I think she is a damn fool. But really, the unspoken dilemma that she has is that if she makes a commitment to this American (Italian, if it matters), she is also deciding not to go home. For real. I was feeling that.
Many things about the immigrant experience are addressed here – the church as the center of the community, the ethnic enclaves. At one point, her department store employer determines to cater to the new African American families moving in to the community. Eilis is chosen to staff the lingerie counter when the nylons are sold and serves the first African American customers. She notes the tension, and how everyone is trying to ignore it. She notes that the customers don’t look at her and don’t speak to her and she handles their purchases. And she has to fight about it at home in the boarding house. I thought it was very well done – I rather forgot the fact that Toibin is from Dublin.
That I had guessed before I got to it..but the sister dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Before Eilis makes the trip back to Ireland, Mr. Wonderful talks her into a secret wedding. Just to make sure she doesn’t decide to stay home with her mother. It seems like a heavy handed weasel thing to do, but it showed that he knew her pretty damn well.
So three quarters of the book is about building a life in America and the last part is racing toward answering the question: does she throw it all away out of guilt?
I was a little disappointed that some less dramatic compromises were not considered. Like, say..why didn’t Mr. Wonderful go to Ireland with her? And why did Eilis not consider sending for her mother to come to America? Or even going home for the purpose of settling business and taking her mother back to America? The Choose Mom or Choose the Guy was a bit stark, but I suppose that is how you build the drama.
That said, I really loved this book.