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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

As someone of Irish descent, I found Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, a fascinating look at how one young girl makes her way from her small town in Ireland to the big borough of Brooklyn.

Shy Eilis Lacey lives with her widowed mother and older sister Rose. Rose has a good job, supports her family, and has an active social life. Work is difficult to come by in the 1950's in Ireland, and Eilis works part-time as sales girl in a small grocers.

An opportunity in the form of Father Flood arises. He can arrange for Eilis to come to Brooklyn where he lives, she can find steady work, and go to college to get an accounting degree and a better life. Eilis fears leaving her mother and sister, but Rose convinces her it is for the best.

Leaving everyone she knows far behind, Father Flood arranges for Eilis to work at a department store by day, and attend college by night. She lives in Mrs. Kehoe's boardinghouse, along with several other single women. It is a lonely life for Eilis, and although she is successful as a shopgirl, she finds it tedious.

She concentrates on her studies, working hard to get good grades. On Friday evenings, she goes to the dance at Father Flood's church. There she meets Tony, a handsome plumber from a big Italian family. Tony pursues Eilis, and slowly, Eilis comes to care deeply for him.

Tony wants to marry Eilis, and they plan a future together. When Eilis gets bad news from Ireland, she returns home and finds that the life she left there still has a hold on her. Her dilemma grabs at the heart.

Toibin has been compared to Alice McDermott, and he mines the same territory to similar effect. The reader is immediately drawn into Eilis's life, and feels empathy for her. The reader feels the fear of leaving one's home, traveling overseas where you know no one, and trying to build a new life. Eilis's story is one that many of our ancestors lived, and her story feels authentic.

The characters are interesting, particularly Eilis and Tony. Toibin gets you to care deeply about these characters. The boardinghouse life, and the desire of immigrants to work hard to make a better life is explored with great skill by the author.

You won't easily forget Eilis, or her fascinating story. Rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews.

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