Sara's Reviews > Brooklyn

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
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Oct 19, 11

Read in October, 2011

I thought I'd read enough reviews of this novel before picking it up to know what I was getting into: in the depressed 1950s in Ireland, a somewhat wallflowerish, small-town Irish girl is sent by her family, perhaps against her will and definitely in contradiction of what she understands her personality to be, to Brooklyn, New York, to work. From what I'd heard about the book, she goes to New York, blossoms surprisingly, and then is forced to return to Ireland after a family crisis. That's kind of the plot, but that actually tells you nothing about the way this book unfolds.

The first two hundred pages of the book are delicately written. Our main character, Eilis, has a way of understanding the suitors in her life as holding back, not giving in to a more ardent passion they feel, and that might be a good description of how Toibin treats both Ireland and Brooklyn. Clearly an intense amount of passion must have led him to gather so many period details (the book is surprisingly knowledgeable about the state of post-war women's nylons) but Toibin never feeds you more than you need. All the reviewers quoted in my paper-back edition of the book praise Toibin's faithful rendition of 1950s Brooklyn, but that seems like a silly thing to say -- what could any of these reviewers know about 1950s Brooklyn that didn't just come from books anyway? I think what they must be praising is his ability to plant one crucial period detail that evokes a whole ambiance, rather than trying to squeeze in 25 details that will prove how hard he researched the authenticity of his setting.

But it's the last 60 pages that are amazing. What might you think the point of a book would be, that sends a woman out to New York to go after her fortune, and then sends her back to sleepy, claustrophobic Ireland where she must confront the possibility of staying? That you can't go home again. That you can't escape your past. That the force of 1950s patriarchal culture is too strong even for an ambitious woman. That the condition of the emigrant is one of dwelling in two incommensurate worlds. No. No. No. None of these are the point of the book. Toibin avoids absolutely every cliche about the emigrant experience to deliver one of the most stunning fictions of the trans-Atlantic Irish world that has ever been written. No exaggeration.
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Marye Pat When I read your review I definitely wanted to read it. So glad I did it was so well done and the ending just shook your very core. What a manipulation by those who loved her and then to see the outcome. Thanks for the recommendation. Keep them coming.


Sara Oh, I'm so pleased you liked it!


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