Saturday, 1 May 2010

Bloggers Book Club Review, May 2010: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

Quick Synopsis:
The book begins in Ireland in the 1950’s, with the central character Eillis Lacey. Employment opportunities are scarce and Eillis is lucky enough to get a part time job in a shop, albeit for a condescending, rude & ungrateful woman. Almost without involving Eillis in the decision, her family arranges for her to emigrate to New York, and she finds herself leaving her family and country for the first time. When she arrives in Brooklyn she is homesick, but slowly begins to build a life for herself in Brooklyn, until one day she receives a phone call from Ireland which leads to her returning home and facing the dilemma of whether to choose duty or love.

Some reviews of this book:
- Brooklyn moved me more than any other book this year (Nicholas Hytner Observer, Books of the Year )
- A beautifully crafted work that transformed ordinary lives into something extraordinary (Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year )
- No book this year gave me greater pleasure (Nell Freudenberger Financial Times )

After reading the rave reviews above, I was really looking forward to reading this book, and as it is a way of life I consider alien to my own (being only 31, I have not experienced the Ireland that is written about in the book), I was fascinated by the differences between them. There were so many issues within the book, I scarcely know where to begin, so if the following is a bit muddled, please bear with me.

Overall, I was disappointed that although there were so many issues within the book - family relationships, social issues in America, her female supervisor’s lesbianism, the Jewish night school teacher who escaped from WWII concentration camps, duty, love, sacrifice ... I feel that these issues were all very much understated. I appreciate that this is the very thing that others will love about the book, but for me, I wish Toibin had explored them more. At the end of the book I felt that I came away knowing as little about Eillis as I did in the beginning, and perhaps liking her even less.

Eillis seems to be swept along with the flow, fickle, rather than having her own opinions and being a person in her own right. I would have liked to see her get a bit excited about something. I actually feel that I know more about the characters she shared a boarding house with, than Eillis herself. She seemed to make no real effort with the girls in the boarding house, and even with the landlady, she appears less than interested. She is downright rude to the new boarder, and went way down in my estimation after the scene at the dance hall.

Eillis has an uncomfortable experience with her supervisor, but we hear no more about it. She finds out that her teacher has been in the concentration camps, but again we hear nothing else about this character.

Eillis’ relationships with her family members were suggested, rather than hinted at. They love each other, but yet cannot speak openly together, cannot confide in each other, cannot comfort eachother. The relationships she has with the two leading men in the story did not feel passionate or emotional, and at the end of the book I didn’t feel like Eillis was breaking her heart to leave her “one great love”. She only makes her decision in the end because someone forces her hand. Otherwise she’d have dithered on and prolonged the agony.

All in all, the concept of the book is fantastic but it's execution is not to my taste. Whilst Toibin describes things well (the trip over to America is very graphic, and I could feel myself on the ship with Eillis), he loses the definition in the characters, and because he doesn’t engage them, neither did I. It’s not something I’d keep on my bookshelf, but at the same time I’m glad to have read it to see what all the fuss was about.

The other Bookclub Bloggers:
I'm dying to know what the other bloggers thought. If you want to see what the other bloggers have to say about it, here are their links (Please forgive (and correct me) if I have any details wrong:

Lily (Lilly’s blog)
Lorna (Garrendenny Lane)
Marian (Made Marian)
Treasa (Irish Mammy on the run)
cathy (Irish Rumbling Strips)
Val (Magnum lady)
Jenn (SmurfetteJenn’s blog)
Edie (Munchies & Musings)
Catherine (Dispatches from the Deis)
Marie (Diary of an Irish country wife)
Kirsty (Kirsty Road )
Last of the Mojitos
Susan (Queen of Potts)
Una (Justuna)
Steph (The Biopsy Report)

June's Book Club Read is 'Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum Mc Cann. Our reviews will be online the first Sunday in June.


  1. What a great review Jenny. You put it so much better then I did.
    I felt like Colm just scratched the surface of so many issues....and didn't write properly about any of them.

  2. Hi Jenny, I've changed my link to your blog rather than your business website. This is an excellent review and I agree with everything you've said. I had forgotten about the teacher story, that was something that possibly should have been explored more or left out. Poor Eilis, nobody seems to like her at all!!

    Made Marian (the comment section won't let me comment as Made Marian so I have to use an old persona!

  3. Awesome review, Jenny! I totally agree with everything you said. I had also forgotten about a few of the things you brought out (the trip to America, the school teacher). One thing we all seem to agree on is Eilis...poor thing, no one seemed to like her (lol)!

    p.s. - I've added your link to my sidebar.

  4. Jenny, apologies, I've corrected your link in my post. You had left your main website in your original comment, that's why I had used it.

    I loved your review, you cover so many aspects of the story.

    Your summary is exactly as I feel - 'It’s not something I’d keep on my bookshelf, but at the same time I’m glad to have read it to see what all the fuss was about.' My husband and I read a lot of the same books. Sometimes I read before him and vice versa. I read this book first and told him not to bother reading it. Need I say more

  5. Great review Jenny. I have to say I enjoyed it but having said that, i do agree with your points re characterisation. You're right, Eilis did love things like her books than the 2 men in her life.

  6. Jenny - came to read your review of Colm McCann and chanced upon this one which I missed last month - sorry about that - I agree with a lot of your comments on this one - Eilis is never fully rounded out to be a person you could really empathise with - I found her a bit hard to relate to - I think putting myself in the timeframe of the setting - the 60s rural Ireland - it's a bit easier to see why she was so strained in her relationships with others, very unemotional and of course that would have fitted in with the restricted lives of Irish people of that day - very church led and controlled with little allowed for non-conformity. Sorry this comment is so late!