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Book Review: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (4/5)

31 Mar

My book club selected this title for later in the summer but I rushed to read it early. I received a copy of the movie in exchange for a review so I wanted to read the book first. My awesome library had a copy available so I figured, why not? I’m glad I got through this book, it was really great.

Book image via

Book image via

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

It’s rare for a woman’s voice to be captured so well by a male author. I was thinking all along that I must be wrong and that Colm must be a woman, but his picture says otherwise. Eilis was a great character and I really connected with her. She was practical and smart and I think that’s why I was frustrated with her toward the end (I’ll talk about this later) when I felt she broke that image of herself. I liked how Tóibín described all of Eilis’s friends and acquaintances, letting the reader know how important these people were in shaping her life. There were a few times I felt frustrated at not receiving more closure about these characters. Did Dolores ever adjust to the borders? Why did we learn so much about Frank to have him disappear? What was in the unopened letters? I felt the book needed another 20-50 pages and that was my only complaint.

I found Eilis’s struggle very relatable. No, I’ve never lost someone close to me (trying not to give spoilers) but I understand the obligation she felt. I understood why everyone acted the way they did including Tony and Jack and her mother. It was a story where I felt like I knew what would happen and to an extent, things played out how I thought they would because I could think like the characters. It wasn’t predictable, but I could divine what everyone would be thinking. I hope this comes off as the compliment it is.

Except for a bit at the end, I loved Eilis. I felt like I understood her and her thought process and I could relate to why certain things were important to her. She thought like me and that was reassuring. I liked that she was practical but things like her homesickness were purely emotional and she didn’t know how to control them which I loved. She was very real.

I almost wish Eilis’s story was my story. I can’t imagine the pain she felt at her loss, but I wanted to jump into her life and try it out. I thought she was brave to move away from home but I would have loved to do the same. I thought it was crazy how fast she fell in love with Tony but he was the perfect gentleman and I had a book-crush on him.

Colm Toibin Image via the author's website

Colm Toibin
Image via the author’s website

Surprisingly, I loved the scenes in the boarding house the most. I thought the other girls and Mrs. Kehoe were great and they not only helped set the tone for the book but made Eilis stand out when she needed to (how she was nice to Dolores and gave her direction and a push when she needed it to (to go to the dances). It was a good home base for Eilis to return to and I missed the characters toward the end of the book.

Spoiler alert here so skip this paragraph if you haven’t read it. There were a lot of unfinished threads in the book that I would have liked to see tied up more. The scene with Miss Fortini and the swimsuits raised a lot of questions for me that were ignored in the rest of the book. Eilis didn’t treat her boss any differently even though she was really uncomfortable. Who would act like that? At the end of the book, Eilis doesn’t open the letters from Tony. I was convinced one would say Tony was ill or had died and she’d be returning to no one in Brooklyn. Dolores is dropped from the book with little to wrap up her role in Eilis’s life. I thought a lot of this could have been cut because it made the book seem unfinished and it frustrated me.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Kirsten Potter. I was a little wary at first when I realized the narration would be in an American accent but anything Eilis or another Irish character said would be in an Irish accent. I was afraid Potter would slip up, but she was great. The accents helped me understand when a character was talking and to my American ear, they sounded great. I thought she did a wonderful job.

Eilis always had to do what was right and very seldom had the option to do something for herself. The only thing she did for herself, date Tony, ended up being a sad thing for her mother who wanted her at home. She went to school because it was smart, she moved to America because there was a job and she could support her family. She started seeing Jim because her mother wanted her to. Sometimes, we have to do somethings for ourselves, even when our lives don’t seem to be our own. Tony brought Eilis more joy than she could imagine without him even though it hurt some others. I believe the end was positive though I’ve seen this contested. I think Tony was the right choice for her, even if it wasn’t the easy one.

Writer’s Takeaway: As I said above, I was frustrated by themes and characters that I didn’t feel had closure. As a reader, I want to know more than Toibin gave me. This is the second book in a month where I’ve had an issue with the book not finishing an arc that was started. I’m having one of those times when I want to write my book to show everyone what I mean! If only school were over…

I really enjoyed this book but my structural problems with it means to me that it doesn’t get a perfect rating. Four out of Five stars.

This book fulfilled 1940-1959 in my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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