A note to readers: Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn gets better with age. The novel opens up sleepily in the town of Enniscorthy, in Ireland’s County Wexford, where the reader is introduced to Eilis Lacey, a young woman unable to find work in Europe’s post-World War II economy. Soon, however, Eilis is transported to the United States and the action of the novel becomes increasingly more engaging. More than simply an immigration tale or coming-of-age story, Brooklyn ultimately makes a statement about human nature that is difficult not to identify with.
In her small Irish village, Eilis Lacey lives with her recently widowed mother and beautiful older sister, Rose. After the death of the family patriarch four years before the action of the novel begins, the Laceys systematically sacrificed each of the family’s three sons to England for the chance to make a living. As a result, the three women are left alone to fend for themselves. Soon, however, it becomes clear to Rose that Eilis has little hope for wealth or happiness in Ireland. Along with a family patron, Father Flood, the elder Lacey women decide that Eilis’s best hope for success is found in a trans-Atlantic move to America.
Eilis differs from most immigrants of her time in that her move is reluctant. Eilis is young and inexperienced enough that she isn’t disillusioned with her home country. As such, she has no reason to romanticize America as the “land of opportunity” or a coveted “second chance”. However, once she arrives in Brooklyn and overcomes a painful but beautifully written bout of homesickness, she begins to assimilate. Eilis performs well at her job as a salesgirl at a Fulton Street department store, achieves high marks in her accounting classes at Brooklyn College, and falls in love with Tony, an Italian Brooklynite she meets at a local dance. Her new American life, however, is forced to a halt when she receives devastating news from home, obliging her to return to the life and people she left behind in Enniscorthy.
As Eilis resettles into her childhood home, she finds it increasingly difficult to return to the life she created for herself in Brooklyn. As a result, she delays her departure, binding herself evermore to her home country. Eilis’s difficulty in deciding whether to return to America or remain in Ireland demonstrates our penchant as humans to settle into our surroundings, whether we have chosen them or not. Because Eilis has put down roots in both Enniscorthy and Brooklyn, she must ultimately prioritize her affiliations and make the difficult decision of where to make her home. Like Eilis, we must all make these tough decisions at some point and thus cannot help but identify with Eilis’s plight.
Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn started slow for me, but took off and wouldn’t let up once the plot got going. This book comes recommended to readers of all types, but especially to those interested in Irish or period literature.