I have wanted to read Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn for a long time, ever since the movie starring Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey was released. I heard from my aunt that the movie was very romantic, so I was eager to read the story before seeing the film.
Unfortunately, the book was, in my mind, anything but romantic. I do intend to watch the movie soon, but I have a feeling that the plot was altered greatly. The novel, to be perfectly honest, doesn’t focus too much on the emotions and feelings at play in the relationship between Eilis and Tony, or his Irish counterpart Jim, for that matter. Rather, the novel focuses on the difficulties of immigration, the adjustments associated with relocating and beginning a new life in a strange country. This is, obviously, a useful object of study and a smart focus for a novel, but it wasn’t what I was expecting from what my aunt said or the way I had seen the film adaptation branded, so I have to admit that I was quite disappointed upon finishing my reading experience.
Brooklyn was, for me, an average novel. I’ve read a few average novels recently, and I just had to place Brooklyn among them because, although I enjoyed the story and had a pleasant time reading it on my lunch breaks, I didn’t feel any strong connection to the characters or their lives. On the contrary, I found it VERY difficult to build any sort of sentimental attachment to Eilis Lacey because her thoughts and preoccupations were described so sparingly. I don’t know if this is typical of Tóibín’s writing style as I’ve never read any of his other works, but I found that, rather than delving into scenes or investigating his characters’ feelings, Tóibín almost summarized them. Unlike in many of my favourite novels, scenes and conversations and internal monologues were glossed over instead of described or fleshed out with lengthy detail. By way of comparison, if we take a novel like The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (perhaps my favourite novel of all time), although years of Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire’s lives are portrayed, particular moments of real importance are treated with care and are described for pages on end. Even the simplest walk in the park for Henry and Clare is detailed extensively, so as to develop an understanding in the reader of their daily lives, their bond and their struggles. I had thought that Tóibín would’ve done something similar in Brooklyn, especially because he could’ve so richly described Eilis’ homesick feeling and her sense of discomfort and insecurity in a foreign country. Instead, Tóibín offers the reader a sentence explaining that Eilis misses her home in Enniscorthy, and then moves swiftly on to describing her days at work and her studies. Even those details he doesn’t spend much time on though, and we never fully come to understand what Eilis is studying, or why the professor of her law class has intrigued her so much. Eilis’ relationships are described in a similarly sparse style: Father Flood, who acts as her financial and emotional support in America, is mentioned fleetingly as someone who offers her advice, but we never see Eilis contemplating this advice at length; Eilis’ dates with Tony are mentioned, but we don’t get many details of her conversations with him on said dates; even Eilis’ relationship with her sister Rose isn’t fully fleshed out, and when Rose passes away unexpectedly, we are told that Eilis is mourning, but we only get a few moments of Eilis’ anxiety over being left to her empty room with her grief. It seems, for all these reasons, that Eilis is a flaky character, and I can’t decide if that is because of how Tóibín presents her or if he intended for her to be wishy-washy and, frankly, a tad irritating.
I would think the latter is the case, because I was irritated not only by the feelings and emotions Eilis has that we don’t get to experience in detail, but also by her actions and her lack of confidence. I became most frustrated toward the end of the novel when Eilis returns home to Ireland to visit her mother. I’ve become increasingly interested, now that I am engaged, in studying female characters who are wives or are in the process of becoming married. Eilis Lacey offered me a portrayal of a wife that I hadn’t expected. As I stated, I was told that Brooklyn was a very romantic movie, so I wasn’t expecting Eilis to be the type of woman who would marry Tony, her American boyfriend, quickly before leaving for a month-long trip to Ireland, and then abruptly forget about her new husband. I was totally disconcerted by the fact that Eilis returned to Enniscorthy, only to begin dating Jim Farrell. Although Eilis seems to genuinely miss Tony at first, she altogether abandons him once Jim starts paying attention to her, and I think this mainly has to do with the fact that she is too reluctant to admit to her family and friends that she wants and intends to return to Brooklyn. She won’t even tell her mother about Tony and is so hesitant about setting a date for her return to America. This was maddening for so many reasons, particularly because it felt like Eilis was allowing people to walk all over her. I wanted her to have grown, to have developed some backbone and confidence during her time in New York, enough to strongly state that her life in Brooklyn was what she wanted and that she was returning, regardless of how hard anyone would try to convince her not to. Instead, I saw Eilis falling back into her meek, unassuming manner and going along with the plans her friend Nancy and her mother had for her to date Jim. It made no sense to me at all, and I truly feel as though Eilis doesn’t grow as a character throughout the novel. That was the most disappointing realization of all because I don’t think it was unrealistic of me to expect that this sort of coming-of-age novel would provide a heroine to look up to.
For some people, this might be the novel they turn to when they seek strength. It might be the kind of inspiring story they use to remind themselves that they can overcome all obstacles. But, for me, it sadly missed the mark.
❥ ❥ (out of 5)
Girl with a Green Heart