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Friday, July 23, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: Brooklyn

Brooklyn: A NovelOn Monday my group at the BPL met to discuss Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Toibin. Here is how Amazon summed up the novel when it was included in the May 2009 Best of the Month:
Committed to a quiet life in little Enniscorthy, Ireland, the industrious young Eilis Lacey reluctantly finds herself swept up in an unplanned adventure to America, engineered by the family priest and her glamorous, "ready for life" sister, Rose. Eilis's determination to embrace the spirit of the journey despite her trepidation--especially on behalf of Rose, who has sacrificed her own chance of leaving--makes a bittersweet center for Brooklyn. Colm Tóibín's spare portrayal of this contemplative girl is achingly lovely, and every sentence rings with truth. Readers will find themselves swept across the Atlantic with Eilis to a boarding house in Brooklyn where she painstakingly adapts to a new life, reinventing herself and her surroundings in the letters she writes home. Just as she begins to settle in with the help of a new love, tragedy calls her home to Enniscorthy, and her separate lives suddenly and painfully merge into one. Tóibín's haunted heroine glows on the page, unforgettably and lovingly rendered, and her story reflects the lives of so many others exiled from home.
Overall, I was disappointed in this book. I felt like it was all surface. Everything was laid out for you; there was no ambiguity. Quite honestly, I was shocked by how well it has been reviewed. I was also quite worried that we would have nothing to discuss. Thankfully I wrong on that front.

Here is the rundown of our discussion:
  • We had 16 people this month and the breakdown was 11 who liked the book and 5 who were so-so. Those who liked the book focused their reasoning on their attachment to Eilis. Those who were so-so, like myself, were less enamored by her. I actually wanted to scream at her to make a decision already, while another participant loved her for her major flaw, "that not to decide, is to decide."
  • The time period was something we all liked. We got to see Ireland and Brooklyn in the years immediately after WWII. These places were on the cusp of change, with one going down (rural Ireland) and one moving up (Brooklyn). We talked about this, and participants who have been to Ireland shared some stories of their travels.
  • Although we all agreed that Brooklyn can be classified as a "literary fiction beach read" or "literary fiction lite," we did like how it was not a typical "coming to America" story. This book is about the choice Eilis has to make between her old life and the new one in Brooklyn. It is the choice which is at the center of this novel.  However, there is no suspense here since the title is "Brooklyn," you really know what choice she will make from the start.
  • We spent time talking about Tony, Eilis' Italian-American boyfriend. Tony is perfect. He is a happy, caring man, with a great family. His flaws are that he is not educated, but he does have a trade (plumber) and a plan that the reader is lead to believe will pan out for a bright future. Personally, I thought he was too-good-to-be true, but that is not what the author wants you to think. We felt you were supposed to take Tony at face value. This bothered me personally, but my group said that was just how people really were "back then."
  • We moved from Tony the man, to Tony the literary device. I reminded the group that Toibin included Tony for a reason. So, I asked them, what is that reason?  Our answer: Tony serves as Eilis' opposite.  Tony is American while Eilis is still an immigrant. Tony has a happy, loving, close, and communicative family, while Eilis' is cold, distant, and unhappy. Tony wears his emotions on his sleeve while Eilis bottles everything up. Tony is there for Eilis to see another way to live, and he is there for us to see Eilis and her faults more clearly.
  • SPOILER ALTER: This then led to a discussion of Tony's insistence that they secretly marry before she returns to Ireland for her sister's funeral. We agreed he was smart to insist on this because as soon as she gets back, Eilis gets caught up with a local boy. She reverts back to the old Eilis. Which leads her to finally confront her mother and (sort of) stand up to her.
  • The mom! No one liked her. We thought she was controlling and manipulative. When she had Rose to take care of her everything was fine, but once Eilis returns for Rose's funeral it is as if she expects Eilis to give up her new life in America to stay in Ireland. The mom even hooked Eilis up with Rose's old job, lined up a possible husband, and filled Eilis closet with Rose's clothes. Eilis, who is not able to make decisions at all, easily falls back into the mode of being controlled. It is only when a local woman calls Eilis out and threatens to tell everyone that she is really married to an American man that Eilis comes clean. Her mom understands the wifely obligation, but does not see Eilis off. And in true Eilis form, she slinks off into the night to go back to America.
  • I did pose the question that if she hadn't married Tony before she left, what would have Eilis done? Would she have stayed and married Jim, or would she have returned to Brooklyn? 10 people said she would have stayed in Ireland and only 6 said she would have gone back to Tony. We then re-read a few lines toward the end of the book to get a better sense of Eilis' state of mind. She claims not to love Tony, but we questioned if she really understood love. It seems that when she is with Tony, she truly cares for him, but he is so different from everything she has ever known and this scares her a bit.
  • We spent a good deal of time ending Eilis' story. Since the book ends with her getting on the ship, we have no idea what her life with Tony will be like. We don't even know what is in the letters Tony wrote her while she was back in Ireland because Eilis never opens them. So, I asked, what happens? We all agreed that Tony's plan will work out and he and his brothers will become successful builders on Long Island. They will all live there near each other and Eilis will be their accountant. Eventually we felt Eilis' mom would come to America and live with them; not because Eilis wants her to, but because family is so important to Tony and he would insist they care for her.  Everyone felt Eilis would have a happy life, and as long as she could have children, things would work out.  But I was concerned that being forced to be a stay-at-home mom would stifle the ambitious Eilis and that she may end up unhappy in about 20 years. No one else agreed with me however.
Readalikes: NoveList has a few suggestions for readalikes including A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, Ireland by Frank Delaney, The Gathering by Anne Enright, Love and Summer by William Trevor.

However, these are all only about Ireland or Irish immigrants to America.  I would also suggest reading Pete Hamill whose novels contemplate the broader immigrant experience in America with a  focus on the Irish. If you want a specific suggestion, our group discussed North River here and I read Forever here (scroll to the bottom of the post).

If you do want more Irish suggestions, click here.

I also think one of the major appeals of this novel is the story of a young girl facing hard choices about her life as she emerges into adulthood.  Other coming-of-age stories about imperfect, young women facing their first big adult choices that I would suggest are: Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson or The Last Girls by Lee Smith.

Finally, I joked during the discussion that I would like to see part 2 of this story: Eilis in the suburbs of Long Island in the 1960s, but that would be a more dystopian novel in the vein of Revolutionary Road, The Ice Storm, or Little Children, Aloft which I read here.

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