Author: Colm Toibin
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2009 (read Apr. 2021)
I have so many thoughts on this book. I’m not a big movie goer, but I saw Brooklyn in theatres when it came out at the recommendation of a friend and fell in love with the movie. I didn’t even realize it was a book until several years later – but it didn’t have the best reviews on Goodreads, so I decided to give it a pass. About a month ago I stumbled across a copy in a second hand bookstore and decided to revisit the story and give the book a try.
The movie stays very close to the book, so it’s hard to separate one from the other. As reviews suggest, the writing is good, but not great. The author has a very ‘matter of fact’ way of telling the story that can seem a little bland next to some other books. That said, I enjoyed the book a lot more than I thought I would – Toibin is still a good writer, it’s just not the kind of moving writing that you give 5 stars too. Even so, I found the story just as compelling as the movie and flew through it in just 2 days.
In some ways I preferred the book and enjoyed getting Eilis’ internal monologue, but in other ways I thought the movie was stronger. Eilis has an indifference to Tony in the book that doesn’t quite sell this as a love story as strongly as the movie does. The most notable difference for me was the last part of the book when Eilis returns to Ireland. The first three quarters of the movie follow the book almost verbatim, but the story diverges slightly in the last quarter. The ending of the book is almost jarring in its suddenness, but that may be because I was expecting it to continue based on the movie.
But before I get into the spoiler part of the review, I just want to talk about why I love this story. It may not be 5 star writing, but in my opinion, it’s definitely a 5 star story. Brooklyn is set following WWII, we’re not told the exact year, but based on the setting, others have dated it to the early 1950’s. Eilis grew up in a small town outside Dublin and has spent her whole life in Ireland. She studies book keeping, but as a young adult, she struggles to find meaningful work. Her sister, Rose, makes contact with an Irish priest in New York who offers to sponsor Eilis to America. He arranges her papers and finds her work in a department store and accommodations in a boarding house.
Eilis is overwhelmed with the pace at which the decision is made for her to go to New York and feels she has no other choice. She’s not looking forward to leaving Rose and her mother, but she acknowledges there’s very little for her in Ireland. So she boards a boat to America and settles in an Irish community in Brooklyn. It’s very difficult for her at first and she becomes homesick, but eventually she settles in and starts to build a life for herself. She attends Brooklyn College for book keeping and meets an Italian named Tony who starts to make her feel at home.
I love this story because it is such an accurate portrayal of how it feels to leave home and make your life elsewhere. Even though the story is set in the 1950’s, its a story so many can relate to. I grew up in a small city that has also been heavily influenced by Irish culture and while I wasn’t personally forced to leave to find work, many of my family members and to an extent, my husband, were forced to seek opportunity elsewhere. While my motivation for leaving was different from Eilis, I could relate with so much of what she went through. Toibin captures so well the heartbreak of leaving your home behind and the challenge of feeling you can longer share a part of yourself with anyone. Eilis goes through many struggles, but she doesn’t want to burden her mother and sister with her pain, so she keeps it to herself. She feels she has no one that she can share her true self with until she meets Tony.
I don’t want to go too much further and potentially spoil the story for someone, so I’ll just say that I think this a story anyone can enjoy and would highly recommend to anyone who has left one home behind for another. It’s definitely a white immigration story – the struggles Eilis faces are almost laughable to what today’s immigrants experience, so definitely read those immigration stories too.
But now let’s get into more of the SPOILER part of the review.
Like I said above, the book doesn’t sell this as a love story quite as strongly as the movie does. That’s fine because I think the love story is secondary to Eilis’ personal experience, but it is a little disappointing to read. Eilis is lukewarm to Tony throughout most of the book, but slowly grows to love him. I definitely love Tony, but he is somewhat problematic and I wasn’t totally sold on how Toibin portrays Eilis’ feelings towards Tony. Eilis really did need Tony – she needed someone to share herself with. She keeps to herself a lot and struggles to fit in with the women she boards with, so when she connects with Tony, he is very much a lifeline to her. She’s reluctant in love, but I think it’s more a part of her character than her feelings about Tony. It just takes her a while to really warm up to him. Overall I was impressed with how Toibin communicates Eilis’ story, but there were definitely a few instances where Eilis’ internal thoughts didn’t jive with me. It was only a handful of times, but I did find myself thinking, “this is a man writing how HE thinks a young woman would think, rather than how I think Eilis would actually think” (if that makes sense).
Tony pressures Eilis into marrying him because he’s afraid she won’t come back from Ireland otherwise. It’s definitely a legitimate fear, but sad for both of them that they don’t trust their love enough to really test it. More disappointing of course is Eilis’ relationship with Jim when she returns to Ireland. This relationship is absolutely essential to the story, but Eilis’ indifference to Tony in the book as compared to the movie was a little upsetting to me. I didn’t remember her actually kissing Jim in the movie (or at least not more than once), whereas in the book she pretty much has a full on relationship with him and reflects that she regrets marrying Tony.
Don’t get me wrong, I love how this dilemma is presented to Eilis. Suddenly everything she ever wanted is available to her in Ireland. She reflects on why life couldn’t have been like this for her 2 years ago before she was forced to go to America, but she also has to acknowledge that America helped her to grow in so many ways and is largely responsible for the success she’s now able to have in Ireland. But in my opinion the movie better presents the dilemma in having to choose between these two lives. Because in the book Eilis openly regrets her marriage to Tony, it’s a little disappointing to then see her return to that life anyways. With both the book and the movie ultimately having the same ending, I definitely prefer the movie. One of my favourite scenes from the movie is when Eilis boards the boat back to America and mentors the new Irish girl about her lived experience. It’s so moving and more cathartic than how Toibin opts to end the book. Maybe the book is more accurate in the heartbreak of her decision, but the movie definitely provides the catharsis.
I did still like Eilis’ reflections on her life in Brooklyn in the book though. She describes how it seems like a hazy dream to her now that’s returned to Ireland. I thought it was so accurate how when surrounded by people you used to know, the experiences you lived without them almost seem to disappear. Her mother and friends thought she was glamorous upon her return, but they had little interest in what actually happened to her in Brooklyn. This is accurate to my own experiences.
I’ve been away from home for a lot longer than Eilis, but aside from my parents, I generally find my friends don’t have a whole lot of interest in my life in BC. It’s not that they don’t care, I think it’s just that it’s no longer a shared experience between us, so it’s easier for them to talk about their own lives because those lives exist in a setting we can at least both relate to. It’s also a struggle because despite how much you grow, you often remain in stasis for those friends (as they do for you as well). Because of the distance it’s hard for you to grow together now and so you become stuck as former versions of yourself.
As much as I love the movie ending over the book ending. I did love the last thought that Eilis has on her way back to America. How the fact that “she has gone back to Brooklyn” is something that Jim will be upset about for awhile, but how over time it will become something that means less and less to him, while it will become everything to her. The movie ends with the line “and you realize, that this is where your life is”, which is also accurate. Despite the heartbreak of repeatedly saying goodbye to your friends and family every time you see them, the truth is that you have built a life somewhere else, and that’s okay.