Brooklyn

( 148 )

Overview

“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...

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Brooklyn: A Novel

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Overview

“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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Tóibín … [is] his generation’s most gifted writer of love’s complicated, contradictory power.”
— Floyd Skoot, Los Angeles Times

“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

Jonathan Yardley
Brooklyn is a modest novel, but it has heft. The portrait Toibin paints of Brooklyn in the early '50s is affectionate but scarcely dewy-eyed; Eilis encounters discrimination in various forms—against Italians, against blacks, against Jews, against lower-class Irish—and finds Manhattan more intimidating than alluring. Toibin's prose is graceful but never showy, and his characters are uniformly interesting and believable. As a study of the quest for home and the difficulty of figuring out where it really is, Brooklyn has a universality that goes far beyond the specific details of Eilis's struggle.
—The Washington Post
Liesl Schillinger
Colm Toibin…is an expert, patient fisherman of submerged emotions…In tracking the experience, at the remove of half a century, of a girl as unsophisticated and simple as Eilis—a girl who permits herself no extremes of temperament, who accords herself no right to self-assertion—Toibin exercises sustained subtlety and touching respect. He shows no condescension for Eilis's passivity but records her cautious adventures matter-of-factly, as if she were writing them herself in her journal…In Brooklyn, Colm Toibin quietly, modestly shows how place can assert itself, enfolding the visitor, staking its claim.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Signature

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.

Maureen Howard's The Rags of Time, the last season of her quartet of novels based on the four seasons, will be published by Viking in October.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

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

Kirkus Reviews
This plaintive sixth novel from the Booker-nominated Irish author (Mothers and Sons, 2008, etc.) is both akin to his earlier fiction and a somewhat surprising hybrid. T-ib'n's treatment of the early adulthood of Eilis Lacey, a quiet girl from the town of Enniscorthy who accepts a kindly priest's sponsorship to work and live in America, is characterized by a scrupulously precise domestic realism reminiscent of the sentimental bestsellers of Fannie Hurst, Edna Ferber and Betty Smith (in her beloved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). But as Eilis both falters and matures abroad, something more interesting takes shape. T-ib'n fashions a compelling characterization of a woman caught between two worlds, unsure almost until the novel's final page where her obligations and affections truly reside. Several deft episodes and set pieces bring Eilis to convincing life: her timid acts of submission, while still living at home, to her extroverted, vibrant older sister Rose; the ordeal of third-class passenger status aboard ship (surely seasickness has never been presented more graphically); her second-class status among postwar Brooklyn's roiling motley populace, and at the women's boarding house where she's virtually a non-person; and the exuberant liberation sparked by her romance with handsome plumber Tony Fiorello, whose colorful family contrasts brashly with Eilis's own dour and scattered one. T-ib'n is adept at suggestive understatement, best displayed in lucid portrayals of cultural interaction and conflict in a fledgling America still defining itself; and notably in a beautiful account of Eilis's first sexual experience with Tony (whom she'll soon wed), revealed as the act of a girl who knows she mustfully become a woman in order to shoulder the burdens descending on her. And descend they do, as a grievous family loss reshapes Eilis's future (literally) again and again. A fine and touching novel, persuasive proof of T-ib'n's ever-increasing skills and range. Author tour to Boston, New York, Princeton, N.J., San Francisco
The Barnes & Noble Review
Small towns everywhere can seem like stage sets in the theater of respectability. Sidewalks are washed, the facades are painted, the performers go to church in their Sunday best. But in fiction, such towns fester with whispery gossip, small betrayals, hidden hypocrisies, petty tyrannies, and calculated arrangements of everything from jobs to marriages. The residents could be living in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, or in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in the Republic of Ireland.

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439148952
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 3/2/2010
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 92,034
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Blackwater Lightship; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; and The Testament of Mary, as well as two story collections. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Biography

Colm Tóibín is a literary star of the "new" Ireland, the one -- as noted by National Public Radio's Jacki Lyman -- is short on whiskey and St. Patrick and long on cell phones, personal computers, and a stage set for economic opportunity. This is an Ireland where the people stop to cheer an author, yes, an author, whose latest novel has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its key subject matter is the protagonist's struggle with his homosexuality.

"When I went down to get my groceries, people stopped their car and got out of them and waved at me and looked at me as though I was an athlete and shouted at me, ‘Come on, you can do it. You can do it,' " Tóibín said on NPR's All Things Considered in 2000. "And I basked in the sunshine of Irish approval and love for about three weeks.... You know, sort of -- I keep wondering when this, you know, backlash or something is going to happen, but I'm afraid it isn't going to happen. I'm afraid the country has changed, and being a writer there is actually quite a nice thing these days."

In fiction, travelogues, essays, and newspaper columns, Tóibín has established himself as a writer who can connect both the political and the personal to a sense of place. Though his work has often been informed by the political history of Ireland, he has also drawn on his travels to places like Spain and Argentina to create settings for his work.

And, even though his current home of Dublin has never made an appearance in any of his fiction, the environs of his youth -- County Wexford -- have been prominent.

The Washington Post, in a 2000 review of The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, which Tóibín edited, called him a "journalist and critic of influence, a brilliant novelist steadily harvesting his own postage-stamp piece of Wexford as diligently as Faulkner worked Mississippi."

"Colm Tóibín has established himself as a major and distinctive voice in contemporary Irish fiction," the Dictionary of Literary Biography has noted. "While his work makes much of the complex associations between people and place, he eschews easy stereotypes of Irishness in favor of the often-contradictory impulses that pull on contemporary lives.

Tóibín was born into a family that had a long history in his hometown. His father, who died when Tóibín was 12, was a local schoolteacher, and his grandfather was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was twice imprisoned by British authorities for civil disobedience against British rule.

Tóibín explored this history as a writer, following four years teaching English in Barcelona, Spain. He began as a features editor but moved to editing a current affairs magazine and joined the Sunday Independent in Dublin in 1985 as a columnist. As an author, he started by writing travelogues on Ireland and Spain before publishing his first novel in 1990. The South, which draws on Ireland's Catholic-Protestant tensions as well as Tóibín's life in Spain, is about an Irish woman who leaves her husband and son and moves to Spain, falls in love with a political artist, and returns to Ireland as an artist herself, once her son is grown.

This novel would establish Tóibín's reputation as a writer with a keen sensibility for characterization ("His novels have been noted for their deft characterizations, particularly of women, as evidenced by the strong female protagonist in The South," noted Contemporary Literary Criticism), but it wasn't until later novels such as The Story of the Night and The Blackwater Lightship that readers would realize his insight into gay characters as well.

"This is not a simple, upbeat story about gay liberation or political activism," Merle Rubin wrote in The Christian Science Monitor in 1997. "Powerfully imagined and tautly written, it is a subtly shaded portrait of a country in transition, a culture beginning to reflect important political changes, and a man coming to a new understanding of himself."

David Bahr, writing in The Advocate in 2000, predicted that The Blackwater Lightship -- now that it had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- would finally make Tóibín known outside his magazine's primary readership: "His latest...should finally prove to straight American readers what many gay people have long known: that Tóibín is one of the more honest and subtly powerful novelists publishing today.... Perceptive and moving, The Blackwater Lightship again reveals Tóibín to be the kind of restrained, quiet writer whose prose feels as natural as breathing. His poetic narrative is so understated that its profound lyricism often takes you by surprise, infusing a potentially familiar tale with vibrant new life."

Mixing fiction and biography in 2004, Tóibín penned a novel inspired by the life of Henry James. "Ambitious and gracefully plotted," said the New Statesman. In the pages of London's Observer, a previous Tóibín skeptic confessed he had been swayed. "There's little in Colm Tóibín's previous work, to some of which this reviewer has been immune or even mildly allergic, to prepare for the startling excellence of his new novel," Adam Mars Jones wrote, "The Master is a portrait of Henry James that has the depth and finish of great sculpture."

Moving fully into nonfiction, Tóibín continued to impress.

The New Statesman observed that The Irish Famine: A Documentary was "no arid survey of the historiography of the famine, but a stimulating quest, prompted by a personal and vocational curiosity. And Joseph Olshan, writing in Entertainment Weekly in 1995, awarded Tóibín's The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe an A, not only for its ability to dissect the Church's close relationship with European politics and social order. "[W]hat Tóibín comes back to is the transcendent power of Catholic ritual," Olshan writes. "Indeed, in a very moving centerpiece, Tóibín describes a therapy session during which he relives his father's death and comes to realize that his most profound wish is to bless his deceased parent with the sign of the cross. This is an extraordinary document."

But it may always be the intensely personal moments in his fiction that will always stand out. Susan Salter Reynolds noted as much in the Los Angeles Times in 2000. "There is little reconciliation in Colm Tóibín's novels; moments in which the stage is set for it usually pass," she wrote. "His novels build to these moments, fraught with potential, from which the air goes out with a nasty little hiss, and a new chapter, full of reasons not to live, begins.... It's good to read Tóibín's honest novels, in which human beings fail to forgive, fail to understand. We spend so much of our lives in the dark, shouldn't literature face this as squarely as we must?"

Good To Know

Tóibín's novel The Story of Night is No. 84 on the Publishing Triangle's list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels of all time.

He counts two books by James Baldwin -- Giovanni's Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain -- as major influences on his work.

Tóibín covered the downfall of the military dictatorship in Argentina in 1985.

He joined such authors as Roddy Doyle in the 1997 novel Finbar's Hotel, in which each of the seven authors wrote individual chapters set in the same 24-hour period at a fading hotel.

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    1. Hometown:
      Dublin, Ireland
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 30, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
    1. Education:
      St. Peter's College, Wexford; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and history
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

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

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Reading Group Guide

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.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 148 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(26)

4 Star

(51)

3 Star

(33)

2 Star

(26)

1 Star

(12)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 149 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 5, 2010

    Touching and Hard to Forget

    This Colm Toibin novel is one of the best books I have ever read. I love the delicate, thoughtful prose. The dialogue - such a hard thing for most writers to pull off - feels very real, too, as does the depiction of the immigrant experience. Slowly, patiently, and very deliberately, Toibin drew me in by narrating from protagonist Eilis' point of view and even reviewing previously-described events from Eilis' perspective. I was lulled into that state you may associate with a good movie: as you become attached to the characters, your stake in a particular sort of ending increases. And herein lies Toibin's skill: he drew me in *twice* -- tricked me with no trickery -- such that his quietly-worded ending delivered me an indescribably powerful punch. Unbelievable.

    16 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Oversimplified and not enough plot

    This is a simple and gentle story about a young woman's immigration to New York from Ireland in the years after WWII. Much of the novel contains her personal thoughts and her analyzing her future and decisions and life in general. It has an easy pace with lots of descriptive elements and a vast array of characters.

    I really wanted to love this book, but it just seemed oversimplified. I think virtually anyone could have thought up the plot if they were given the basic elements (girl alone in big city, first real job, meeting new people, family crisis). In fact, at one point it felt like an After School Special.

    While Toibin depicts the female brain very well in some areas, there are other things that don't ring true. For example, other than her work and classes, the main character seems to have no curiousity about the world in general, or about the exciting new country she has come to. In subjects such as racism and the Holocaust, not only does she know nothing but she has no interest in learning more. And while we hear much of her thoughts, some subjects she doesn't even visit mentally: when her female boss makes a sexual pass at her, she feels uncomfortable but never ponders it again. Yet she ponders so much more trivial stuff all the time throughout the book (what to wear or where to eat)
    .
    Additionally, while there are some tragic events, overall there doesn't seem to be enough conflict to make the story interesting. All the other characters are almost too good to be true, some crusty or cranky but all of them (excepting Miss Kelly) are big hearted and generous. Money is never really an issue, and things go amazingly smooth for such a huge life change. Again, that seems incredibly unrealistic. And the strange behavior of her fiance's moodiness, her mother's unpleasantness, and her landlady's suspicions are never really explored.

    I intend to read more of his work (I have ordered the Blackwater Lightship) and I hope things become a bit more complex and realistic.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 12, 2009

    Bewildering

    I have to laugh a little as I write this review. I liked the book, enjoyed reading it, but still do now know why. Maybe this is what a good writer can do. Write on seemingly nothing and make it seem like something. The time and places (Ireland and Brooklyn) were not particularly interesting nor were the characters. None of them really did anything special except live their daily lives which were not interesting either. There you have it.

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 5, 2010

    A lovely story

    I enjoyed "Brooklyn" a great deal. The character of Eilis was complex in personality; the story was well-written and it drew me in. The ending was not quite what I expected (a good thing!) The cultural issues of post-WWII Ireland and the US rang true as well. A lovely read!

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 25, 2010

    Moving Immigration Story

    Brooklyn is a quietly gripping story of a young woman finding her way through the challenges to her identity brought by an unchosen immigration from Ireland. Loss, uncertainty, the personal task of building a meaningful life in unfamiliar circumstances are managed with little guidance beyond her personal reflection - portrayed elegantly and believably by Toibin. The author's compassion for all of the characters gives this personal tale a sense of privileged peeking into the rich interior life of people who worked to live a life they themselves could respect.
    Also, Toibin crafted the story such that surprise can catch you as you look back at Ireland from the cold streets of Brooklyn.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2012

    Nothing Exrtraordinary, but still a well writtten novel

    I agree with others that this novel was a bit drawnout. It was a nice story but it took too long to tell in my honest opinion. It left me wanting just a little more. Read this after you finish the other books on your list.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 25, 2012

    Colm is a very good writer but this is a little tedious in place

    Colm is a very good writer but this is a little tedious in places. Interesting details but if he were a woman, this would be classified and mrketed as chicklit

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 21, 2012

    Another story of the Irish diaspora

    This is the story of a young Irish woman who emigrates to Brooklyn where she find a job and then marries a man who is not Irish. She travels to Ireland for a visit, considers staying there but ultimately realizes what she must do.

    This book is full of personalities - the village residents, the mother, the sister, and the boys. There are surprises and twists and turns. It's a satisfying read, especially for those fascinated by immigrant stories.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2011

    Brooklyn

    Interesting story and very well-written. It was a fast read that kept my attention til the last page.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 8, 2011

    Excellent

    Descriptions here of the emotional life at once supremely tender and unsentimental. The work of a masterful hand.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 30, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Brooklyn? Really?

    There really wasn't much about Brooklyn in this novel, at least not enough for it to merit the title. As it is, it is a love story about an immigrant girl who enjoys her new home in America, but then is forced to return to Ireland after a death in the family. What I liked about the book stopped at this point and unnecessary confusion reigned from that point on. Little of what happened in Ireland made sense given what had preceded it. Other than some location material, and Dodger talk, if you come to this book expecting to revisit Fulton Street and an older Brooklyn, there is no nostalgia here as Brooklyn is but a minor character.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2011

    Good Read

    I did enjoy this book. Although it seemed to me that the author couldn't decide what direction he wanted Eilis to go (as far as her character went) but nevertheless I enjoyed it and would read it again a few years.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 2, 2010

    A short story turned into a novel.

    "Brooklyn" gives the impression of being a good short story expanded into a dull novel. The first half of the book is merely a drawn out, rigidly chronological setting up of the second half. The characters are thinly drawn. Even the main character, the very passive Eilis, from whose point of view the story is told, remains a cipher who sort of sleepwalks into situations. The scenes of Ireland in the 1950s are the strongest part of the novel. This book is an easy read. So much so that at times it seems like something more suitable for the YA market. I am perplexed at the critical praise this novel received.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2010

    I want more.

    I picked up this book knowing what a great writer Colm Toibin is but upon reading I am disappointed. The story is very readable and the characters settings and history real yet so lightly dealt with. Through the eyes of the main character Eilis we see her small Irish town, its way of life and inhabitants including her mother, sister, girlfriends and employer. She then is sent to Brooklyn and again we are shown her life of work, night classes, church dances, boarding house, friends, and "romance" but nothing really strikes deep. Things happen, people come and go and Eilis seems in a fog. I was rather insulted that Toibin wrote her as how else can I say it, stupid. I know an immigrant woman's choices were limited in that time period but this girl had no personality or interests. She just went with the flow in a deliberate almost plodding way.
    I think what bothers me most is that there is so much that could have been dealt with and wasn't. Background about her professor, landlady, priest, sister, mother and even the homeless singer would have made this a meaty book of personalities, cultures and age to get into.
    They say less is more but in this book for me, it just wasn't enough.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 2, 2010

    Gently draws the reader in....

    "Colm Toibin's "Brooklyn" gently draws the reader into the life of a young Irish girl, Eilis Lacey. There is little work in post World War II Ireland. Her two older brothers had previously been forced to move to England to find work and due to the encouragement of her beloved older sister, Rose, and the sponsorship of a visiting priest from America, Eilis leaves the home she shares with Rose and their widowed mother and travels from a small town in Ireland to seek employment in Brooklyn. What I found most interesting was Eilis' gradual immersion into life in America, which was so different from the life she left behind. Brooklyn truly proves to be the land of opportunity for Eilis. She lives in a boarding house owned by an Irishwoman, finds work at a local department store and attends classes in bookkeeping at night. She meets a young Italian man, Tony, who introduces her to more of life in America. When a tragedy forces her to return to Ireland, she has to decide where her future lies. So much more than just the story of a young immigrant girl becoming an independent woman, Brooklyn itself, and the complexity, diversity and opportunity found there almost seems to be a character in the book."

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 16, 2010

    Angela's Ashes does Ireland better

    Bland. The stoicism of the characters was reflected in the writing. I found it hard to find any connection to the characters, hard to follow Eilis' emotions and felt her constant desire to be alone might have been a mental issue. The story itself has been done before, numerous times. I think it's done better when the reader can sympathize with the new immigrant's struggle. It was a decent story that may start a good book club conversation, but I wouldn't recommend it to Jane Doe looking for a book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2010

    Could care less

    Although the plot was original, and the writing craftsman-like, I couldn't care about any of the characters, or what happened to them. So the novel ultimately fails its most important test: making the reader relate to the characters.

    I don't recommend this book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    ?

    Not sure what all the hype is about. I found the characters dry and one sided. There were many characters brought in for a very small amount of time that didn't seem to have purpose.
    The city of Chicago, IL chose it as their ONE city ONE read book for 2010 and I was highly disappointed.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2010

    Sorely Disappointing

    I am not at all a fan of this book, disappointing considering the reviews on the author. The writing style was fine, however the plot was fairly uninteresting, the main character impossibly naive, drab and without a much of a mind of her own... she is molested by another woman and once the situation is over, she thinks nothing more of it; she has also never heard of the Halocaust. This is not a "cute" innocence but rather completly frustrating. The ending wraps up too quickly and will leave you unsatisfied. My book club chose this book and another book by an Irish author as we suspected they might pair well together and this one received low reviews from us all, mainly for the reasons above.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2010

    Brooklyn

    I absolutely loved this book. The characters and settings were so true to that era. Although I did not come from another country, I moved from another state to Chicago at about the same age, so I could identify with many of the things Eilis was feeling.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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