I had come across this title a few times while perusing the long and short lists for award-winning fiction. However, the description–something about Ireland, a priest, a move to New York–put me off reading it. It was while reviewing the Guardian’s article on authors recommending just two reads for the summer that it caught my eye again. I believe Tom Stoppard called this novel “flawless.”
Far be it from me to argue with Tom Stoppard, so I won’t delve into whether I think it’s flawless or not, but I will say it is a touching, thought-provoking, wonderful book. It evoked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn more than once for me, with its descriptions of New York, seen through the eyes of innocence. The atmosphere of the book absolutely captivated me.
Quick plot review: It’s the fifties in Ireland. Eilis’ family decides it’s time for her to make her way in the world, and what better place to do it than in Brooklyn, USA, the land of promise–and where the local Irish priest has many contacts who can help Eilis get settled.
Before she knows it, Eilis finds herself sick as a dog on a ship crossing the ocean.
Toibin is able to render Eilis’ experience so that the reader feels she is going through it herself. But what is so nice, so refreshing, is that after a while I realized that nothing shocking or violent or predictable was going to happen. Eilis was quite successfully making her way in the world, the New World at that.
She does well at work, she has a nice place to live, and she meets and falls for Tony, a sweet Italian boy.
Then an event calls her back to Ireland. I’m not giving anything away–the book jacket tells you this much. What it doesn’t tell you is now the book gets really, really good. No more black and white–grey enters the scene big-time.
One of my favorite books is Old School by Tobias Wolff. The main character does something that made me, as the reader, want to jump into the book and shout “stop!–don’t you see what you’re doing?” I had that same feeling while I was reading Brooklyn; I literally felt afraid for Eilis. I can’t say more without giving some of it away, so I’ll stop here.
Suffice to say, I heartily recommend this book. And with both Tom Stoppard and I recommending it, you’re going to read it, right?