Brooklyn: A Novel

By Colm Toibin
Binding:Paperback
Publisher:Scribner, (3/2/2010)
Language:English



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“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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updated on:7/7/2010



Unleash it


"Brooklyn: A Novel"
By Colm Toibin

Average Rating:
Unleash it
3.00 out of 5 (1 Clubie's ratings)


The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 
 
 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.
 
 
1. Before she goes to America, Eilis believes that, “While people from the town who lived in England missed Enniscorthy, no one who went to America missed home. Instead, they were happy there and proud” (pg 26). Why do you think the Irish had such a rosy view of America? How are Eilis’s expectations met upon her arrival?

2. As Eilis begins night classes in accounting, she notes the divisions between Italian and Jewish students, and the lack of English or other Irish students. At work, she must confront racial integration when Bartocci’s opens its doors for the first time to black customers. How does Eilis react to the divisions among Europeans immigrants from different countries, as well as those between white and black Americans? How are the traditional ethnic lines of Brooklyn beginning to break down in the 1950s?

3. When Eilis and Tony first meet, she seems more interested in him as an escape from her troublesome housemates than as a genuine romantic interest. Tony, however, is clear about his love for Eilis from the start. Why do you think Eilis is hesitant in her feelings? Is a relationship with such uneven attachment doomed from the start, or do you believe that one person can “learn” to love another over time? 

4. Some characters in the novel are referred to as Miss or Mrs., while others are identified by their first name. Does this reflect their relationship with Eilis? Why would Colm Toibin make this stylistic choice? How would your perception of the characters in Brooklyn be different if Tobin had written the novel from the “first-person” perspective of Eilis?

5. Imagine Eilis in today’s world. Do you see her primarily as a career-motivated woman, or as a wife and mother? How does Toibin present the conflict between job and family in the 1950s? How is it different today?

6. When the clerk of the law bookstore in Manhattan engages her in conversation, Eilis displays an ignorance of the Holocaust that would startle us today. How do you explain her confusion? What does it tell us about the Ireland—and New York—of the 1950s?

7. Something happens to Rose that, in retrospect, makes you reexamine the reasons she might have urged Eilis to move to America. Discuss this.

10. Eilis decides to keep her marriage to Tony a secret from her mother and friends in Enniscorthy because she believes they won’t understand. Do you believe that this is Eilis’s true reason, or might her silence indicate other motives?

11. Does Eilis’s notion of her duty to family evolve from the beginning of the novel—when she leaves Enniscorthy—to the end, when she returns to Tony in America? 

12. If Eilis had been able to choose freely, between Brooklyn and Tony, and Enniscorthy and Jim, what do you think she would have chosen? Or is Eilis really a young woman who does not choose, who allows others to determine her fate?

13. Tóibín ends Brooklyn before Eilis even boards the ship back to America, leaving her future unwritten. Why do you think Toibin chose to end the book there? What do you imagine Eilis’s future holds?

Tips to Enhance Your Book Group

1. I Love Lucy! was the hit show of the 1950s. However, it depicts a very different life for Ricky and Lucy, also living in New York City, than Eilis experiences. Watching some episodes of I Love Lucy! and discuss the differences between this Hollywood version of life in the ‘50s and Tóibín’s depiction in Brooklyn.

2. Irish traditions and food appear throughout Brooklyn, particularly in the passage about the dances Eilis attends both in the U.S. and Ireland. Listen to ceili music at your meeting, and ask members to bring their favorite Irish (or Irish-inspired) dish! 

3. Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is perhaps one of the most well-known depictions of New York City in the 1940s. Pair the two novels (perhaps reading them in tandem, or for consecutive meetings) and discuss the changes in Brooklyn from Smith’s 1940s to Tóibín’s 1950s.


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Amazon.com Review
Amazon Best of the Month, May 2009
: Committed to a quiet life in little Enniscorthy, Ireland, the industrious young Eilis Lacey reluctantly finds herself swept up in an unplanned adventure to America, engineered by the family priest and her glamorous, "ready for life" sister, Rose. Eilis's determination to embrace the spirit of the journey despite her trepidation--especially on behalf of Rose, who has sacrificed her own chance of leaving--makes a bittersweet center for Brooklyn. Colm Tóibín's spare portrayal of this contemplative girl is achingly lovely, and every sentence rings with truth. Readers will find themselves swept across the Atlantic with Eilis to a boarding house in Brooklyn where she painstakingly adapts to a new life, reinventing herself and her surroundings in the letters she writes home. Just as she begins to settle in with the help of a new love, tragedy calls her home to Enniscorthy, and her separate lives suddenly and painfully merge into one. Tóibín's haunted heroine glows on the page, unforgettably and lovingly rendered, and her story reflects the lives of so many others exiled from home. --Daphne Durham
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
SignatureReviewed by Maureen HowardColm 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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From The New Yorker
Tóibín’s brief novel, following his bravura rendering of the life of Henry James in “The Master,” seems modest at first. A diligent young woman with few opportunities in nineteen-fifties Ireland is packed off by her family to Brooklyn, where she works in a department store, goes to church and night school, and acquires a boyfriend, before a family crisis presents her with a stark choice between her new life and her old one. Within these confines, Tóibín creates a narrative of remarkable power, writing with a spareness and intensity that give the minutest shades of feeling immense emotional impact. Seen through his protagonist’s cautious eyes, even hackneyed tropes of Brooklyn life, such as trips to Ebbets Field and Coney Island, take on a subtle strangeness. Purging the immigrant novel of all swagger and sentimentality, Tóibín leaves us with a renewed understanding that to emigrate is to become a foreigner in two places at once. 
Copyright ©2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From The Washington Post
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley For the second time in three weeks I have before me a work of fiction about the lives of Irish immigrants in the United States. Previously, it was Mary Beth Keane's heartfelt if slow-moving first novel, "The Walking People." Now we have "Brooklyn," the sixth novel by the eminent Irish writer Colm Tóibín. Probably the timing is pure coincidence rather than evidence of a new literary trend, but it's interesting that both books deal with the theme of persistent Irish identity in a new land and both evoke the deep homesickness that the Irish often feel here even as they strive to become thoroughly American. Tóibín is an immensely gifted and accomplished writer who has covered a remarkable range of subjects from Henry James (in his novel "The Master") to homosexuality (in "Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar"), so it comes as no surprise that "Brooklyn" is intelligent and affecting. What may surprise American readers, however, is how confidently familiar Tóibín seems to be with New York City during the early 1950s, the period in which the novel is set. To be sure, he has had occasional teaching engagements in New York (and in Washington and Princeton as well), but they are unlikely to have taught him as much about, say, the Brooklyn Dodgers and "Singin' in the Rain" as is on display here. The period feeling of "Brooklyn" is genuine and impressive. At the center of the story is Eilis (a Celtic name that mean's "God's oath") Lacey, who is somewhere around 20 years old when the novel opens. She lives in a small town in Ireland with her widowed mother and her older sister, Rose, a smart, spirited 30-year-old. Eilis is studying bookkeeping and preparing for a conventional Irish life: "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. She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children." Then the unexpected happens. A priest visiting from the United States, Father Flood, takes a liking to Eilis and offers to sponsor her in Brooklyn, finding her a job with a merchant on Fulton Street and arranging a room for her in a boarding house for respectable young women. She has a bit of a timid streak -- "She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the [new] clothes and shoes" -- but Rose urges her to seize the opportunity: "Rose, she realized, in making it easy for her to go, was giving up any real prospect of leaving this house herself and having her own house, with her own family. Eilis . . . saw that in the future, as her mother got older and more frail, Rose would have to care for her even more, go up the steep steps of the stairs with trays of food and do the cleaning and cooking when her mother could not." As much to honor Rose's sacrifice as to improve her own prospects, Eilis goes to Liverpool and boards a liner there for New York. She's put into a cabin with a brusque, no-nonsense Englishwoman who turns out to be an unlikely but wholly endearing saint; the voyage is dreadful, but the woman makes it bearable. Eilis gets off to a good start at the store -- she may be unassuming, but she's also competent and resourceful -- but then she receives a batch of letters from home, and suddenly her head is filled with images of what she has left behind: "All this came to her like a terrible weight and she felt for a second that she was going to cry. It was as though an ache in her chest was trying to force tears down her cheeks despite her enormous effort to keep them back. She did not give in to whatever it was. She kept thinking, attempting to work out what was causing this new feeling that was like despondency, that was like how she felt when her father died and she watched them closing the coffin, the feeling that he would never see the world again and she would never be able to talk to him again." Her boss at the shop worries about her and calls on Father Flood. "You're homesick, that's all," he tells her. "Everybody gets it. But it passes. In some it passes more quickly than in others. There's nothing harder than it." To help her stay busy, he steers her to a night class "in bookkeeping and preliminary accountancy" at Brooklyn College. This proves to be her salvation. She passes the course easily, then does the same the following year, qualifying herself to work as a bookkeeper. Of even greater moment, at a dance sponsored by Father Flood at the parish hall, she meets a young man named Tony, who clearly is attracted to her. He is "clean-cut and friendly and open in his gaze." He is also Italian -- his full name is Antonio Giuseppe Fiorello -- and he works as a plumber, a trade that gives her pause, but only briefly as he woos her, with kindness and patience and infinite tact. He and his brothers are ardent Dodgers fans and eager to make their mark on the world; they've bought a piece of land on Long Island and aim to develop it into a family compound from which all of them can work at their trades. It takes a while, for Eilis is not one to take hasty plunges, but soon enough she returns Tony's love and begins to envision a future with him. Then terrible news arrives from Ireland, and she has no choice except to return. Almost immediately upon her arrival, various forces combine to pressure her into renouncing her new American life, to settle back into the set ways of her village. The choice, in the end, is difficult and painful. "Brooklyn" is a modest novel, but it has heft. The portrait Tóibín 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. Tóibín'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. 
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Bookmarks Magazine
At first, Brooklyn may seem like a weaving together of the traditional, even stereotypical, threads of an immigrant story, a 1950s love story, and a tale of a woman’s struggle for independence. But, critics soon discovered, the novel is so much more. Perhaps Tóibín’s greatest feat is his sensitive, respectful portrayal of Eilis—an uncritical, unsophisticated, compliant, and perhaps, according to some reviewers, too naïve young woman. The author accomplishes “an almost impossible characterization: the heroine as doormat,” praised the Christian Science Monitor. Tóibín’s prose, as usual, sparkles with clarity and insight. As he unburies powerful emotions about love, freedom, authenticity, and duty, as well as resolving Eilis’s dilemma of the heart, he elevates his sixth novel far above its peers.
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Booklist
In his latest novel, following The Master (2004), a celebrated and highly imaginative  re-creation of the life of American novelist Henry James, Toibin maintains his focus on the past. Keeping the pace relatively slow and stressing the wealth of authoritative detail, he contrasts small-town Ireland and big-city Brooklyn in the early 1950s, highlighting the vast differences between the two in customs and opportunity. Eilis Lacey, a smart young woman unafraid of hard work, must leave employment-poor Ireland to find a more lucrative existence in booming New York City. Under the auspices of an Irish priest, Eilis secures employment at a department store and residence in a rooming house for young women. She meets a handsome, charming Italian man, and their relationship quickly flowers into love. When her outgoing sister dies in Ireland, Eilis returns home and must face the decision to stay put or go back to the more exciting life she had begun to create in Brooklyn. --Brad Hooper --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Review
"A beautifully rendered portrait of Brooklyn and provincial Ireland in the 1950s... Toibin writes about women more convincingly, I think, than any other living, male novelist."-- Zoe Heller, author of The Believers

"A classical coming-of-age story, pure, unsensationalized, quietly profound." -- Pam Houston, O, the Oprah Magazine

"A compelling characterization of a woman caught between two worlds... A fine and touching novel, persuasive proof of Tóibín's ever-increasing skills and range."-- Booklist (starred review)

"A quiet masterpiece."-- The Express (U.K.)

"Colm Toibin leads a generation of Irish novelists... His generation's most gifted writer of love's complicated, contradictory power."-- Los Angeles Times

"Reading Tóibín is like watching an artist paint one small stroke after another until suddenly the finished picture emerges to shattering effect."-- The Times Literary Supplement (U.K.)

"Toibin's prose is as elegant in its simplicity as it is complex in the emotions it evokes."-- The New York Times Magazine

"[A] masterly tale... There is not a sentence or a thought out of place."-- Irish Times
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work. She watched Rose crossing the street from sunlight into shade, carrying the new leather handbag that she had bought in Clerys in Dublin in the sale. Rose was wearing a cream-coloured cardigan over her shoulders. Her golf clubs were in the hall; in a few minutes, Eilis knew, someone would call for her and her sister would not return until the summer evening had faded.

Eilis’s bookkeeping classes were almost ended now; she had a manual on her lap about systems of accounting, and on the table behind her was a ledger where she had entered, as her homework, on the debit and credit sides, the daily business of a company whose details she had taken down in notes in the Vocational School the week before.

As soon as she heard the front door open, Eilis went downstairs. Rose, in the hall, was holding her pocket mirror in front of her face. She was studying herself closely as she applied lipstick and eye make-up before glancing at her overall appearance in the large hall mirror, settling her hair. Eilis looked on silently as her sister moistened her lips and then checked herself one more time in the pocket mirror before putting it away.

Their mother came from the kitchen to the hall.

“You look lovely, Rose,” she said. “You’ll be the belle of the golf club.”

“I’m starving,” Rose said, “but I’ve no time to eat.”

“I’ll make a special tea for you later,” her mother said. “Eilis and myself are going to have our tea now.”

Rose reached into her handbag and took out her purse. She placed a one-shilling piece on the hallstand. “That’s in case you want to go to the pictures,” she said to Eilis.

“And what about me?” her mother asked.

“She’ll tell you the story when she gets home,” Rose replied.

“That’s a nice thing to say!” her mother said.

All three laughed as they heard a car stop outside the door and beep its horn. Rose picked up her golf clubs and was gone.

Later, as her mother washed the dishes and Eilis dried them, another knock came to the door. When Eilis answered it, she found a girl whom she recognized from Kelly’s grocery shop beside the cathedral.

“Miss Kelly sent me with a message for you,” the girl said. “She wants to see you.”

“Does she?” Eilis asked. “And did she say what it was about?”

“No. You’re just to call up there tonight.”

“But why does she want to see me?”

“God, I don’t know, miss. I didn’t ask her. Do you want me to go back and ask her?”

“No, it’s all right. But are you sure the message is for me?”

“I am, miss. She says you are to call in on her.”

Since she had decided in any case to go to the pictures some other evening, and being tired of her ledger, Eilis changed her dress and put on a cardigan and left the house. She walked along Friary Street and Rafter Street into the Market Square and then up the hill to the cathedral. Miss Kelly’s shop was closed, so Eilis knocked on the side door, which led to the upstairs part where she knew Miss Kelly lived. The door was answered by the young girl who had come to the house earlier, who told her to wait in the hall.

Eilis could hear voices and movement on the floor above and then the young girl came down and said that Miss Kelly would be with her before long.

She knew Miss Kelly by sight, but her mother did not deal in her shop as it was too expensive. Also, she believed that her mother did not like Miss Kelly, although she could think of no reason for this. It was said that Miss Kelly sold the best ham in the town and the best creamery butter and the freshest of everything including cream, but Eilis did not think she had ever been in the shop, merely glanced into the interior as she passed and noticed Miss Kelly at the counter.

Miss Kelly slowly came down the stairs into the hallway and turned on a light.

“Now,” she said, and repeated it as though it were a greeting. She did not smile.

Eilis was about to explain that she had been sent for, and to ask politely if this was the right time to come, but Miss Kelly’s way of looking her up and down made her decide to say nothing. Because of Miss Kelly’s manner, Eilis wondered if she had been offended by someone in the town and had mistaken her for that person.

“Here you are, then,” Miss Kelly said.

Eilis noticed a number of black umbrellas resting against the hallstand.

“I hear you have no job at all but a great head for figures.”

“Is that right?”

“Oh, the whole town, anyone who is anyone, comes into the shop and I hear everything.”

Eilis wondered if this was a reference to her own mother’s consistent dealing in another grocery shop, but she was not sure. Miss Kelly’s thick glasses made the expression on her face difficult to read.

“And we are worked off our feet every Sunday here. Sure, there’s nothing else open. And we get all sorts, good, bad and indifferent. And, as a rule, I open after seven mass, and between the end of nine o’clock mass until eleven mass is well over, there isn’t room to move in this shop. I have Mary here to help, but she’s slow enough at the best of times, so I was on the lookout for someone sharp, someone who would know people and give the right change. But only on Sundays, mind. The rest of the week we can manage ourselves. And you were recommended. I made inquiries about you and it would be seven and six a week, it might help your mother a bit.”

Miss Kelly spoke, Eilis thought, as though she were describing a slight done to her, closing her mouth tightly between each phrase.

“So that’s all I have to say now. You can start on Sunday, but come in tomorrow and learn off all the prices and we’ll show you how to use the scales and the slicer. You’ll have to tie your hair back and get a good shop coat in Dan Bolger’s or Burke O’Leary’s.”

Eilis was already saving this conversation for her mother and Rose; she wished she could think of something smart to say to Miss Kelly without being openly rude. Instead, she remained silent.

“Well?” Miss Kelly asked.

Eilis realized that she could not turn down the offer. It would be better than nothing and, at the moment, she had nothing.

“Oh, yes, Miss Kelly,” she said. “I’ll start whenever you like.”

“And on Sunday you can go to seven o’clock mass. That’s what we do, and we open when it’s over.”

“That’s lovely,” Eilis said.

“So, come in tomorrow, then. And if I’m busy I’ll send you home, or you can fill bags of sugar while you wait, but if I’m not busy, I’ll show you all the ropes.”

“Thank you, Miss Kelly,” Eilis said.

“Your mother’ll be pleased that you have something. And your sister,” Miss Kelly said. “I hear she’s great at the golf. So go home now like a good girl. You can let yourself out.”

Miss Kelly turned and began to walk slowly up the stairs. Eilis knew as she made her way home that her mother would indeed be happy that she had found some way of making money of her own, but that Rose would think working behind the counter of a grocery shop was not good enough for her. She wondered if Rose would say this to her directly.

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