Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Brooklyn - Colm Toibin


I was compelled to purchased this book on my last trip to Chicago, after reading Simon's glowing review. In fact, Brooklyn was Simon's favorite book of 2009, and I wasn't going to let it slip through my fingers.

The story is an immigrant's tale, set in the 1950's. 20-something Eilis Lacey lives in her small Irish town, living with her widowed mother and vivacious and successful older sister. She willingly stands in the shadows of all around her, including her friends. She aspires to be a bookkeeper, and lives to please. Her life is disrupted when her sister and an American priest arrange for Eilis to travel to Brooklyn, where there are jobs and opportunities for girls with her work ethic and intelligence. Despite her inner doubts, she goes.

Eilis gets a job working for a department store. She goes to school at night to become a certified bookkeeper. She volunteers at church functions. She does as she is told. She meets a clean-cut Italian boy who adores her. She allows herself to be swept along by his love, and convinces herself she is a better person with him in her life. But when a family emergency calls her home to visit, she is faced with some tough choices. Does she continue to make her decisions based on what everyone else wants, or what is in her heart?

Like I said, this is the perfect story of an immigrant. One that could represent that of my husband, my great-grandparents, or our forefathers. In his gentle prose, Toibin paints a picture of hard work, the desire to succeed, the drive to be the best. It is the stuff this country was built on.

It is also a period piece. Toibin gives us a peek into post-war Americana - the chasm between the proper and the hip, the development of an urban society, and discrimination of Jews, Blacks, Italians and Irish in an immigrant melting pot. Mind you, these issues were just barely touched upon. Toibin could have developed this into an 800 page book. But he held back for the sake of simplicity.

Most importantly though, this is the story of a girl struggling with her coming of age. You admire her for her singular focus and determination, yet she can't quite seem to break free of this notion that she must follow the rules. I found it incredibly frustrating, yet I loved her just the same.

There has been much said about the ending of this book. Book clubs might debate it for hours. Is it satisfying? Is it what you expected? It is what you wanted? Is it realistic? My answers would be no, probably, no and yes. I truly wanted to cry from disappointment. I wanted to hunt down Toibin like Annie Wilkes, lock him in my house, and make him re-write the ending. I guess I have to respect him for his creative decisions, though. It was an otherwise subtle and beautiful novel.

4 out of 5 stars


24 comments:

Alice Teh said...

A book that raises so many good questions? I would love to read it. This one sounds like a book with a good story to tell. You've piqued my interest, Sandy!

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I wasn't a big fan of this book. It was too gentle for me. I wasn't bothered about the ending, as I didn't really care enough about the charaters to worry about what happened to them. I'm pleased that you enjoyed this more than me.

Julie P. said...

This book has popped up twice this morning. I'm think someone is trying to tell me something. It does sound like an interesting discussion book.

JoAnn said...

I absolutely agree with you about the ending!! Still loved the book, even though it wasn't on my 'best of' list.

Jeane said...

I like immigrant stories, and have read a few books about Brooklyn, so this one looks interesting. Sounds like the ending is kind of dubious, though.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I totally love the idea of hunting down authors, locking them up, and making them rewrite the endings to books that don't end definitively! Fantastic idea! :--)

Andreea said...

Sounds engaging, Sandy. I know how it is to leave your own country and start fresh in another. Thanks for this post! I will keep an eye on this book!

Alyce said...

I'm curious just to see what the ending is now. I'll be adding this to my list.

Kathleen said...

Glad to hear you liked this one. I just added it to my TBR on Goodreads yesterday when I read somewhere that it was one of Newsweek magazines 50 books for our times.

Nymeth said...

A coming of age story, an immigrant story AND a good piece of historical fiction? I want it!

Carrie K. said...

I really want to read this one! And you do know that you're now halfway to completing the lowest commitment for the Ireland Reading Challenge? ~hint, hint~

Zibilee said...

Lately I have seen awesome reviews for this book pop up all over the place. Since immigrant stories really appeal to me I think this book would make a great read. I will have to be prepared for the ending though, it sounds a little maddening! Great review, Sandy!

Melody said...

The premise of the story plus your lovely review have really piqued my interest! Will have to check it out.

ds said...

I loved The Master and am dying to get ahold of this book. Toibin is such a precise and subtle writer. And of course, you've piqued my interest further because of the ending. Great review, Sandy. Thanks!

Dar said...

Great review Sandy. I've had this on my shelf for ages.

caite said...

I have read good reviews about this book and yours has tipped me into the "I have to get a copy" side. my father immigrated to this country..and in the 1950's, so I would be interested in his take on the experience.

Frances said...

Have to admit that I only looked at your rating here today because I have a copy to get to but do not want to spoil a thing. I love his writing so much! Marked your post to revisit after I read it though. :)

Literary Feline said...

Thank you for such a great review, Sandy. I've heard such great things about this author and book but hadn't quite decided whether I wanted to read it. I think I must now. Especially to find out about that ending. :-)

heidenkind said...

Just rewrite the ending yourself. Fan fiction, baby!

Serena said...

I haven't read this one but I did see the review! I think I need to see if the library has this book.

C.B. James said...

I think this may become my year of Toibin. I loved The Story of the Night as you know, and you've piqued my interest here.

Problem with the ending.....

hmmm.......

Are there any joint review possibilities with his books?

Jenners said...

Now I want to read it just to see what the deal is with the ending!!!

Anna said...

I hadn't heard of this book until I read your review. I'll keep it in mind, as you've made me curious about the ending.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Beth F said...

I've had my eye on this and now you're making me want to quit hesitating. Thanks!