Monday, November 23, 2015
When I saw the trailers for Brooklyn, the movie based on Colm Toibin's novel, I realized that I had the book already, and it had come highly recommended by one of those readers I trust without questions. Since I was at the time trying to decide what to read next, I was fortunate to have the book ready to read.
Having recently read Colum McCann's Transatlantic, another book whose plot moved back and forth between Ireland and American, I was in the mood for this story. The main character, Eilis, lives with her widowed mother and her beautiful unmarried sister Rose, a golfer. Their brothers have left for work years ago.
Eilis has a job working in a store where her mother never shops, prices higher than their usual establishment. The business is run by a domineering owner who makes sharp distinctions between how she treats her customers of different social status, and she takes advantage of Eilis, who is glad to be able to help her mother financially.
Her sister Rose arranges with an Irish Catholic priest from the area, home from America for a visit, to find a job for Rose at an Italian-owned department store and a room in a boarding house for girls.
In Eilis, Toibin creates an intriguing protagonist, self aware but practical. She meets Tony, an Italian boy, at a dance thrown by Father Flood, and although he obviously falls for her hard and fast, she thinks her way through the relationship. At the same time, after surviving the first throes of homesickness, she begins to resume her bookkeeping studies, hoping for advancement at the store when she has found employment.
Called home after a family tragedy, Toibin dramatizes the internal conflict as Eilis begins to see herself as two people--the independent girl living and working and falling in love in America and the Irish Catholic daughter, with a new air or sophistication upon her return home, attracting attention she had missed in her youth.
Toibin avoids turning this into a cookie cutter story primarily through his characterization of Eilis, especially her awareness of her own changes. The author manages to achieve a perfect balance of suspenseful tension and surprise.