The film version of Brooklyn, Colm Toibin’s novel, has received glowing reviews from film critics and audiences alike, mirroring the acclaim that was heaped on the novel itself. Before you rush out to see it or it becomes available for streaming, I’d suggest that the story is one of such intimacy that it requires the depth of immersion that only reading can plumb in order to be fully appreciated. The time spent with Toibin’s luscious prose and the story’s protagonist Eilis Lacey, with whom I promise you will fall in love, will be well worth your efforts.
Eilis is a provincial Irish-Catholic shop girl who, due to limited prospects in her homeland, emigrates to Brooklyn in the early fifties sponsored by a priest from the home country. While living in an all-female boarding house under the intrusive eyes of her landlady and amongst her sometimes petty, always judgmental, fellow borders, Eilis suffers through a period of near-crippling homesickness. However, after she secures a job at a department store with the aid of Father Flood, begins taking night classes at Brooklyn College, and falls in love with a gregarious Italian plumber named Tony and his welcoming family, Eilis begins to relish her life in her new home. Just as Eilis settles into her previously unimaginably happy present and begins looking forward to her happily-ever-after and the attainment of her American Dream, tragic news from home forces her to confront the existential dilemma of choosing between returning to Ireland and fulfilling her familial duties or remaining in her adopted home, where previously unimaginable hopes have crystallized and dreams are coming true.
Brooklyn’s old-fashioned subject matter (love, family, faith, and home) and settingreturn the reader to the idealized 1950’s, while Toibin’s stylistic choices – the use of omniscient, third-person narration; a traditional plot structure that slowly builds to climax; a complete lack of gratuitous or ridiculously romanticized sex, violence, or crude language; and what I love best about this novel, the almost complete lack of post modern irony – earns the reader’s investment in the story through the creation of believable and empathetic characters faced with recognizable, real world difficulties and dilemmas. Brooklyn represents the novel genre in its purest form and fulfills what was once accepted as its most basic function: to capture the drama in the lives of regular people doing ordinary things in their workaday worlds.
Having come of age in the post modern era, first as a reader and student then as a teacher and writer of fiction, my sensibilities to storytelling have been jaded by the avant-garde’s dismissal of all things traditional and, even more so, by the skepticism, irony, and snark typical of the period’s storytellers. The late David Foster Wallace, a contemporary and one of my favorite authors, often worried that the heavy-handed and pervasive irony of the fiction of the late 20th century had forever destroyed authorial sincerity and that when confronted by genuine and straightforward candor, the modern reader wouldn’t know how to process it. For many, Wallace’s concern remains relevant. However, in Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, I have found the antidote to my own sardonicism. In his portrayal of an outwardly-appearing simple young everywoman navigating the world, Toibin captures the complexities of leading an ordinary life – our ordinary lives.