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Colm Tóibín’s New York Times bestselling novel—soon to be a film starring Saoirse Ronan and Jim Broadbent from the award-winning team that produced An Education—is “a moving, deeply satisfying read” (Entertainment Weekly) about a young Irish immigrant in Brooklyn in the early 1950s.
“One of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary literature” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an ...
Colm Tóibín’s New York Times bestselling novel—soon to be a film starring Saoirse Ronan and Jim Broadbent from the award-winning team that produced An Education—is “a moving, deeply satisfying read” (Entertainment Weekly) about a young Irish immigrant in Brooklyn in the early 1950s.
“One of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary literature” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.
Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.
Author “Colm Tóibín…is his generation’s most gifted writer of love’s complicated, contradictory power” (Los Angeles Times). “Written with mesmerizing power and skill” (The Boston Globe), Brooklyn is a “triumph…One of those magically quiet novels that sneak up on readers and capture their imaginations” (USA TODAY).
Reviewed by Maureen Howard
Colm Tóibín's engaging new novel, Brooklyn, will not bring to mind the fashionable borough of recent years nor Bed-Stuy beleaguered with the troubles of a Saturday night. Tóibín has revived the Brooklyn of an Irish-Catholic parish in the '50s, a setting appropriate to the narrow life of Eilis Lacey. Before Eilis ships out for a decent job in America, her village life is sketched in detail. The shops, pub, the hoity-toity and plainspoken people of Enniscorthy have such appeal on the page, it does seem a shame to leave. But how will we share the girl's longing for home, if home is not a gabby presence in her émigré tale? Tóibín's maneuvers draw us to the bright girl with a gift for numbers. With a keen eye, Eilis surveys her lonely, steady-on life: her job in the dry goods store, the rules and regulations of her rooming house-ladies only. The competitive hustle at the parish dances are so like the ones back home-it's something of a wonder I did not give up on the gentle tattle of her story, run a Netflix of the feline power struggle in Claire Booth Luce's The Women. Tóibín rescues his homesick shopgirl from narrow concerns, gives her a stop-by at Brooklyn College, a night course in commercial law. Her instructor is Joshua Rosenblum. Buying his book, the shopkeeper informs her, "At least we did that, we got Rosenblum out."
"You mean in the war?"
His reply when she asks again: "In the holocaust, in the churben."
The scene is eerie, falsely naïve. We may accept what a village girl from Ireland,which remained neutral during the war, may not have known, but Tóibín's delivery of the racial and ethnic discoveries of a clueless young woman are disconcerting. Eilis wonders if she should write home about the Jews, the Poles, the Italians she encounters, but shouldn't the novelist in pursuing those postwar years in Brooklyn, in the Irish enclave of the generous Father Flood, take the mike? The Irish vets I knew when I came to New York in the early '50s had been to that war; at least two I raised a glass with at the White Horse were from Brooklyn. When the stage is set for the love story, slowly and carefully as befits his serious girl, Tóibín is splendidly in control of Eilis's and Tony's courtship. He's Italian, you see, of a poor, caring family. I wanted to cast Brooklyn, with Rosalind Russell perfect for Rose, the sporty elder sister left to her career in Ireland. Can we get Philip Seymour Hoffman into that cassock again? J. Carol Naish, he played homeboy Italian, not the mob. I give away nothing in telling that the possibility of Eilis reclaiming an authentic and spirited life in Ireland turns Brooklyn into a stirring and satisfying moral tale. Tóibín, author of The Master, a fine-tuned novel on the lonely last years of Henry James, revisits, diminuendo, the wrenching finale of The Portrait of a Lady. What the future holds for Eilis in America is nothing like Isabel Archer's return to the morally corrupt Osmond. The decent fellow awaits. Will she be doomed to a tract house of the soul on Long Island? I hear John McCormick take the high note-alone in the gloaming with the shadows of the past-as Tóibín's good girl contemplates the lost promise of Brooklyn.
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This latest from Tóibín (The Master) begins in the southwestern Ireland town of Enniscorthy during the early 1950s, where dutiful daughter, doting sister, and aspiring bookkeeper Eilis Lacey lives with her mother and older sister, Rose. Her brothers have long since left Ireland to seek work in England, and Eilis herself soon departs for Brooklyn, NY. Once there, she attempts to master living and working in a strange land and to quell an acute and threatening loneliness. Initially friendless and of few means, Eilis gradually embraces new freedoms. She excels in work and school, falls in love, and begins to imagine a life in America. When tragedy strikes in Enniscorthy, however, Eilis returns to discover the hopes and aspirations once beyond her grasp are now hers for the taking. Tóibín conveys Eilis's transformative struggles with an aching lyricism reminiscent of the mature Henry James and ultimately confers upon his readers a sort of grace that illuminates the opportunities for tenderness in our lives. Both more accessible and more sublime than his previous works, this is highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/09.]
—J. Greg Matthews
“A classical coming-of-age story, pure, unsensationalized, quietly profound… There are no antagonists in this novel, no psychodramas, no angst. There is only the sound of a young woman slowly and deliberately stepping into herself, learning to make and stand behind her choices, finding herself.”
— Pam Houston, O, the Oprah Magazine
“Reading Tóibín is like watching an artist paint one small stroke after another until suddenly the finished picture emerges to shattering effect…. Brooklyn stands comparison with Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.”
— The Times Literary Supplement (U.K.)
"[A] triumph… One of those magically quiet novels that sneak up on readers and capture their imaginations."
— USA Today
Enniscorthy is a real town (today's population: about 3,700), located on the River Slaney, dominated by St. Aidan's Cathedral. It's the homeplace of the fine Irish novelist Colm Toíbín and has inspired much of his fiction. But in his previous novel, The Master (2004), Toíbín gave us, to high critical applause, a portrait of Henry James and lived imaginatively in London, Paris, Rome, and Florence. In Brooklyn, he returns to Enniscorthy.
Toíbín's main character is a young woman named Eilis Lacey. She is probably 18, jobless when the story begins, studying accounting, living with her sister Rose, who is 30, and their mother. The mother is never named, appearing in the first and last acts of the story as "her mother." Eilis's three brothers have gone to England to work. Her father is dead. Rose is everything that Eilis is not: beautiful, confident, successful by the town's standards, a fixture at the local golf club on warm summer evenings and weekends. Her job supports Eilis and her mother, as do sporadic remittances from the three brothers.
Early on, Eilis is offered a Sunday job at a food shop run by a Miss Kelly. She accepts the offer, but her mother is not pleased. "That Miss Kelly," her mother said, "is as bad as her mother, and I heard from someone who worked there that that woman is evil incarnate."
In small towns, someone is always hearing from someone, particularly if the news is nasty. As long ago as 1918, an Irish writer named Brinsley MacNamara published a portrait of small-town vindictiveness called The Valley of the Squinting Windows and established a genre. In Toíbín's Enniscorthy, the windows still squint. Sexuality is rigidly policed. Even at a weekly dance, where young women arrive to be inspected by young men, there's a sense of a prevailing script. Eilis goes with a girlfriend, Nancy, and they discuss tactics in a diffident way. Nancy is appalled, noting the men on the far side of the room. She says, "They look like they are at a cattle mart." But George, the young man Nancy desires, finally asks her to dance. Eilis leaves alone.
A few days later Rose announces that a Father Flood, who was originally from Enniscorthy and was on his first trip home since before World War Two, was coming for tea. He had known the father of Eilis and Rose; their mother never heard of him, she says. But he comes for tea anyway. And then suggests that Eilis should try America. He could arrange the papers, a ticket, a job in Brooklyn, even a place to stay. "Parts of Brooklyn," the priest explains, "are just like Ireland. They're full of Irish." Her mother is silent. The usually voluble Rose offers no comment. Eilis understands what is being thought, but not said.
And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance. In the silence that had lingered, she realized, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America.
The prospect fills her with anxiety.
Until now, Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town, all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbours, the same routines in the same streets...Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared, and this, despite the fear it carried with it, gave her a feeling, or more a set of feelings, she thought she might experience in the days before her wedding...
But she goes to America, as if the journey had been decided by others. It has. The trip across in a third-class cabin is vividly described, full of vomiting, bleariness, anxiety. This is not mere seasickness; it's the emotional and physical equivalent of both childbirth and miscarriage, full of fear of the unknown. The gut-churning experience of immigrant homesickness has seldom been captured with such power. Eilis is helped by a tough, valiant older woman, who cracks open the locked bathroom with a nail file and starts cleaning the mess, all the while aching for a cigarette. She even helps Eilis on the morning of arrival, applying makeup, adjusting her clothes. Father Flood is waiting. Then it's into Brooklyn.
The scene on the ship is not typical of Toíbín's writing. He has said in interviews that he's a believer in Ernest Hemingway's dictum that "the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." So he writes sparely, demanding careful reading; often the deepest emotions are present in what is not said. This works very well with a passive character like Eilis, who never jumps into conversations, and who is not filled with large romantic longings she hopes will be realized in her Brooklyn exile. In Brooklyn, she has a full-time job. She enrolls at Brooklyn College to finish her accounting studies at night. She has a room in a boardinghouse run by another Irish woman who has no husband on the premises. The other boarders are all young women, most of them Irish too. Eilis accepts the routines of her Brooklyn life and does not protest against the tedium.
She doesn't seem to see much. I was 16 in that Brooklyn, but I don't recognize it in this novel. It's not clear where she lives, but it's near State Street, within walking distance of the shopping district along Fulton Street, where she works in a clothing store. It's probably what the real estate people now call Cobble Hill. My aunt Rose lived in Tompkins Place in Cobble Hill and took in male Irish boarders. There were boardinghouses, almost all for men, in other neighborhoods too. And many neighborhoods, including mine (now named the South Slope), resembled urban hamlets. They were still named for parishes (Holy Name, Immaculate Heart, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, etc.), and some of the people were as trapped in their limited ways as they might have been in Enniscorthy. The young men at least had the Army or Navy to break the patterns, and the G.I. Bill would enable many of them to leave forever. The women didn't have such options.
But Eilis seems to lack curiosity beyond her own essential places, and that is probably Toíbín's intention. The crude version: you can take the girl out of Enniscorthy, but you can't take Enniscorthy out of the girl. Brooklyn in those years was home to almost three million people, bound together by a daily newspaper called the Brooklyn Eagle, the subway system, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Brooklyn Democratic machine. The Korean War was raging, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed 70,000 men in three shifts. You'd know none of this from Eilis. Later in the novel, a young, blond Italian man named Tony does take her to Ebbets Field, and she loves his passion for baseball, our secular religion, but she hasn't a clue about the game.
She is also generally immune to the beauties of Brooklyn: the slanting Edward Hopper light, the handsome brownstones, the low sky with its spectacular sunsets, the ridge across Prospect Park, the views of the harbor and the Manhattan skyline beyond (in her part of Brooklyn, most men were engaged in the commerce of the harbor, as longshoremen, tugboat captains, truck drivers carting waterborne goods to the markets). She does make it to Coney Island with Tony, and there the stifled erotic begins to stir. But the rest of Brooklyn remains a blank.
Almost certainly this blankness is purposeful, for in his journalism and travel writing Toíbín has a fine sense of place. His blank spaces work here like certain kinds of music. They urge us to fill them in with what we know, or remember. After The Master, which is muscular and full of large, complex feelings, this is chamber music. It is also a love story, told in small incremental moments. In the third act, after the romance with Tony turns more serious, Eilis is called back to Enniscorthy when her sister suddenly dies. She is now bound to Tony, even marries him in a civil ceremony, and promises to return. Then slowly, back in the small town, she is tempted never to return to America. The pull of the familiar, the place with limits and certainties, begins to work it powers on her. A haughty young man from that first dance is attracted to her. She is attracted to him. In the eyes of the Church, after all, a civil ceremony is meaningless.
The novel turns on her decision, made by herself and for herself. Two countries, and two men, and two possible lives. She agonizes, she weeps. But when she decides at last, this reader uttered a melancholy cheer. For Eilis Lacey, and for Colm Toíbín. --Pete Hamill
Pete Hamill is the author of North River, Forever, Downtown, A Drinking Life, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction.
Eilis went to midnight mass with Mrs. Kehoe and Miss Keegan, discovering on the way home that Mrs. Kehoe was among the parishioners who were roasting a turkey and potatoes and boiling a ham for Father Flood, who had arranged for it all to be collected at twelve.
"It's like the war," Mrs. Kehoe said. "Feeding the army. Has to be done like clockwork. I'll carve what our own small needs will be from the turkey, the biggest one I could get, it'll be six hours in the oven, before I send it off. And we'll eat, just the four of us, myself, Miss McAdam, Miss Heffernan and Miss Keegan here, as soon as the turkey is off our hands. And if there's anything left over, we'll save it for you, Eilis."
By nine o'clock Eilis was in the parish hall peeling vegetables in the big kitchen at the back. There were women working beside her whom she had never met before, all of them older than she, some with faint American accents but all of Irish origin. Most of them were just here for this part of the morning, she was told, before going home to feed their families. Soon it became clear that two women were in charge. When Father Flood arrived he introduced Eilis to them.
"They are the Miss Murphys from Arklow," he said. "Though we won't hold that against them."
The two Miss Murphys laughed. They were tall, cheerfullooking women in their fifties.
"It'll be just the three of us," one of them said, "here all day. The other helpers will come and go."
"We're the ones with no homes to go to," the other Miss Murphy said and smiled.
"Now, we'll feed them in sets of twenty," her sister said.
"Each of us prepares sixty-five dinners, it might even be more, in three sittings. I'm in Father Flood's own kitchen and the two of you are here in the hall. As soon as a turkey arrives, or when the ones we have cooking upstairs are ready, Father Flood will attack them and the hams and carve them. The oven here is just for keeping things hot. For an hour people will bring us turkeys and hams and roast potatoes and the thing is to have vegetables cooked and hot and ready to be served."
"Rough and ready might be a better way of putting it," the other Miss Murphy interrupted.
"But we have plenty of soup and stout for them while they're waiting. They're very nice, all of them."
"They don't mind waiting, and if they do, they don't say."
"Are they all men?" Eilis asked.
"A few couples come because she is too old to cook, or they're too lonely, or whatever, but the rest are men," Miss Murphy said. "And they love the company and it's Irish food, you know, proper stuffing and roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts boiled to death." She smiled at Eilis and shook her head and sighed.
As soon as ten o'clock mass was over people began to call by. Father Flood had filled one of the tables with glasses and bottles of lemonade and sweets for the children. He made everyone who came in, including women with fresh hairdos, put on a paper hat. Thus as the men began to arrive to spend all of Christmas Day in the hall they were barely noticed among the crowd. It was only later, after midday, when the visitors began to disperse, that they could be seen clearly, some of them sitting alone with a bottle of stout in front of them, others huddled in groups, many of them stubbornly still wearing cloth caps instead of paper hats.
The Miss Murphys were anxious for the men who came first to gather at one or two of the long tables, enough to make a group who could be served soon with bowls of soup so that the bowls could be washed and used again by the next group. As Eilis, on instructions, went out to encourage the men to sit down at the top table nearest to the kitchen, she observed coming into the hall a tall man with a slight stoop; he was wearing a cap low over his forehead and an old brown overcoat with a scarf at the neck. She paused for a moment and stared at him.
He stood still as soon as he had closed the main door behind him, and it was the way he took in the hall, surveying the scene with shyness and a sort of mild delight, that made Eilis sure, for one moment, that her father had come into her presence. She felt as though she should move towards him as she saw him hesitantly opening his overcoat and loosening his scarf. It was how he stood, taking full slow possession of the room, searching almost shyly for the place where he might be most comfortable and at ease, or looking around carefully to see if he knew anybody. As she realized that it could not be him, that she was dreaming, he took off his cap and she saw that the man did not look like her father at all. She glanced around her, embarrassed, hoping that no one had noticed her. It was something, she thought, that she could tell no one, that she had imagined for an instant that she had seen her father, who was, she remembered quickly, dead for four years.
Although the first table had not been filled, she turned and went back to the kitchen and set about checking the number of plates for the first serving, even though she knew she had the right number, and then lifting the lid of the huge saucepan to check if the Brussels sprouts were boiling, even though she knew that the water was not hot enough yet. When one of the Miss Murphys asked her if the nearest table had been filled up and if every man had a glass of stout, Eilis turned and said that she had done her best to move the men to the tables but maybe Miss Murphy could do better. She tried to smile, hoping that Miss Murphy did not notice anything strange.
For the next two hours she was busy, piling food on to plates, carrying them out two at a time. Father Flood carved turkeys and hams as they arrived, piling stuffing and roast potatoes into bowls. For a while, one Miss Murphy devoted herself entirely to washing up and drying and cleaning and clearing space as her sister and Eilis served the men, making sure to leave nothing out — turkey, ham, stuffing, roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts — and making sure in their haste not to give anyone too much or too little.
"There's plenty of food now, so don't worry," Father Flood shouted, "but no more than three potatoes a head and go easy on the stuffing."
When they had enough meat carved, he went outside and busied himself opening more bottles of stout.
At first the men seemed shabby to Eilis and she noticed body odours from a good number of them. As they sat down and drank their stout waiting for the soup or the food, she could not believe there were so many of them, some of them so poor-looking and so old, but even the younger ones had bad teeth and appeared worn down. Many were still smoking, even as the soup came. She did her best to be polite to them.
She observed a change in them soon, however, as they began to talk to each other or shout greetings down the table or enter into low, intense conversations. At first they had reminded her of men who sat on the bridge in Enniscorthy or gathered at the seat at Arnold's Cross or the Louse Bank by the Slaney, or men from the County Home, or men from the town who drank too much. But by the time she served them and they turned to thank her, they seemed more like her father and his brothers in the way they spoke or smiled, the toughness in their faces softened by shyness, what had appeared stubborn or hard now strangely tender. As she served the man she had thought was her father, she looked at him carefully, amazed at how little he actually resembled him, as though it had been a trick of the light or something she had completely imagined. She was surprised also to find that he was talking to the man beside him in Irish.
"This was the miracle of the turkey and the ham," Miss Murphy said to Father Flood when large plates of second helpings had been left on all the tables.
"Brooklyn-style," her sister said.
"I'm glad it's trifle now," she added, "and not plum pudding and we don't have to worry about keeping it hot."
"Wouldn't you think they'd take off their caps when they are eating?" her sister asked. "Don't they know they're in America?"
"We have no rules here," Father Flood said. "And they can smoke and drink all they like. If we can get them all home safely, that's the main thing. We always have a few a bit too under the weather to go home."
"Too drunk," one Miss Murphy said.
"Ah, on Christmas Day we call it under the weather, and I have a rake of beds made up for them in my own house," Father Flood said.
"What we'll do now is have our own dinner," Miss Murphy said. "And I'll set the table and I've kept a nice dinner for each of us hot and everything."
"Well, I was wondering if we were going to eat at all," Eilis said.
"Poor Eilis. She's starving. Will you look at her?"
"Should we not serve the trifle first?" Eilis asked.
"No, we'll wait," Father Flood said. "It'll stretch the day out."
By the time they were removing the trifle dishes, the hall was a mass of smoke and animated talk. Men sat in groups with one or two standing behind them; others moved from group to group, some with bottles of whiskey in brown paper bags that they passed around. When all the cleaning of the kitchen and the filling of garbage cans had been completed, Father Flood suggested that they go into the hall and join the men for a drink. Some visitors had arrived, including a few women, and Eilis thought, as she sat down with a glass of sherry in her hand, that it could have been a parish hall anywhere in Ireland on the night of a concert or a wedding when the young people were all elsewhere dancing or standing at the bar.
After a while Eilis noticed that two men had taken out fiddles and another a small accordion; they had found a corner and were playing as a few others stood around and listened. Father Flood was moving about the hall with a notebook now, writing down names and addresses and nodding as old men spoke to him. After a while he clapped his hands and called for silence but it took a few minutes before he could get everyone's attention.
"I don't want to interrupt the proceedings," he said, "but we'd like to thank a nice girl from Enniscorthy and two nice women from Arklow for their hard day's work."
There was a round of applause.
"And, as a way of thanking them, there's one great singer in this hall and we're delighted to see him this year again."
He pointed to the man whom Eilis had mistaken for her father. He was sitting away from Eilis and Father Flood, but he stood up when his name was called and walked quietly towards them. He stood with his back to the wall so that everyone could see him.
"That man," Miss Murphy whispered to Eilis, "has made LPs."
When Eilis looked up the man was signalling to her. He wanted her, it seemed, to come and stand with him. It struck her for a second that he might want her to sing so she shook her head, but he kept beckoning and people began to turn and look at her; she felt that she had no choice but to leave her seat and approach him. She could not think why he wanted her. As she came close she saw how bad his teeth were.
He did not greet her or acknowledge her arrival but closed his eyes and reached his hand towards hers and held it. The skin on the palm of his hand was soft. He gripped her hand tightly and began to move it in a faint circular motion as he started to sing. His voice was loud and strong and nasal; the Irish he sang in, she thought, must be Connemara Irish because she remembered one teacher from Galway in the Mercy Convent who had that accent. He pronounced each word carefully and slowly, building up a wildness, a ferocity, in the way he treated the melody. It was only when he came to the chorus, however, that she understood the words — "Má bhíonn tú liom, a stóirín mo chroí" — and he glanced at her proudly, almost possessively, as he sang these lines. All the people in the hall watched him silently. There were five or six verses; he sang the words out with pure innocence and charm so that at times, when he closed his eyes, leaning his large frame against the wall, he did not seem like an old man at all; the strength of his voice and the confidence of his performance had taken over. And then each time he came to the chorus he looked at her, letting the melody become sweeter by slowing down the pace, putting his head down then, managing to suggest even more that he had not merely learned the song but that he meant it. Eilis knew how sorry this man was going to be, and how sorry she would be, when the song had ended, when the last chorus had to be sung and the singer would have to bow to the crowd and go back to his place and give way to another singer as Eilis too went back and sat in her chair.
As the night wore on, some of the men fell asleep or had to be helped to the toilet. The two Miss Murphys made pots of tea and there was Christmas cake. Once the singing ended some of the men found their coats and came up to thank Father Flood and the Miss Murphys and Eilis, wishing them a happy Christmas before setting out into the night.
When most of the men had left and several who remained seemed to be very drunk, Father Flood told Eilis that she could go if she wanted and he would ask the Miss Murphys to accompany her to Mrs. Kehoe's house. Eilis said no, she was used to walking home alone, and it would in any case, she said, be a quiet night. She shook hands with the two Miss Murphys and with Father Flood and wished each of them a happy Christmas before she set out to walk through the dark, empty streets of Brooklyn. She would, she thought, go straight to her room and avoid the kitchen. She wanted to lie on the bed and go over everything that had happened before falling asleep.
Copyright © 2009 by Colm Tóibín
1. How would you describe Eilis’ family in terms of their feelings for each other and the ways they communicate?
2. Miss Kelly notes disapprovingly to Eilis that some people come into her shop on a Sunday to buy things, such as soap or toothpaste, that they should have bought during the week. Unspoken, because Miss Kelly and Eilis both understand it, is the Catholic belief that only necessary foods should be bought on Sunday. The Catholicism of all the main characters in the book is so taken for granted that very little is made of it, at least overtly. And yet it determines the characters’ most central values and beliefs. Give some examples of this.
3. Particularly at the beginning of the novel, some crucial scenes are not written. We never see the scene, for example, where Eilis and her family decide that she will go to America. We never see her farewell to her mother, except in a sentence recalled later. Why would Colm Toibin omit these scenes? Do these exclusions work for you? Do they suit – and reflect – the Lacey family, or the society as a whole?
4. The two societies depicted in the novel, mid-century Brooklyn and Enniscorthy, are quite stratified as to class. What are some examples of this? How does Eilis react to the class divisions?
5. Miss Fortini tells Eilis that Broadway is changing and Bartocci’s, the store they work for, must change with it. Post-war America was indeed a time of great social ferment. What are some of the ways the society is evolving, as we encounter them through Eilis’ experience?
6. During a clamorous sale at Bartocci’s, Eilis remembers a scene from home: "she thought in a flash of an early evening in October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy, the Slaney River glassy and full, and the smell of leaves burning from somewhere close by, and the daylight going slowly and gently." Discuss this as a piece of descriptive writing, and its function in this particular scene. How would you describe Toibin’s chosen style for this book and how it reflects the subject matter?
7. Toibin’s last book, The Master, centred on the novelist Henry James. In Brooklyn, he has chosen a very different central character, a young woman with a gift for bookkeeping and very little life experience. What are some of the techniques he uses to authentically portray this female character?
8. Brooklyn naturally strikes Eilis as very different from Enniscorthy. But there is much continuity, as well as discontinuity, between the two places. Discuss some of the similarities (which Eilis usually takes for granted) and differences she finds.
9. What do you make of the scene where Miss Fiorito helps Eilis choose a bathing suit? How does it contribute to the novel as a whole?
10. Most good novels contain a mixture of plot, character portrayal and social observation. Some are largely plot-driven, others focus predominantly on the characters or the society in general. In which category does Brooklyn fall?
11. By far the largest question in the book is the motivation of Eilis. Describe her character, and her occasional ambivalence. Why do you think, after having accepted Tony’s proposal, she seems to change her allegiance with relative speed once she arrives in Ireland? Does the ease with which she gets involved with Jim surprise you? What do you think Toibin is saying about the conflict between duty and the human heart?
12. At the start of the book, Rose is charismatic, while Eilis is less so. But once Eilis leaves for America, she begins to act more like her sister, becoming more assertive and independent. Once she returns to Ireland after Rose’s death, her mother wants her to wear Rose’s clothing, to live with her as Rose did. Eilis even begins to work for Rose’s old company. There are continuing references to reality, shadows and ghosts in the novel, and Eilis feels that she is becoming Rose’s ghost. Discuss the relationship between the sisters, Mrs. Lacey’s expectations about Eilis, and Eilis’ reaction to those expectations.
13. Eilis’ mother is enigmatic in some ways. How does she strike you in the first part of the book, before Eilis leaves? Does she show a different side of herself, after Eilis returns to Ireland? How much do you think she knows about Eilis and Tony? How do you interpret her response to Eilis’s final decision?
14. Even before the reader discovers that Miss Kelly and Mrs. Kehoe are related, it’s noticeable that they have some traits in common. What are they? Could they possibly derive from something larger than the family connection?
15. Who is a better match for Eilis, Tony or Jim? Why?
16. What do you think would have happened if Miss Kelly had never summoned Eilis to her apartment? Re-imagine another ending for the novel.