Brooklyn: A Review

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.

Book Review: The Opposite of Loneliness


Do you wanna leave soon?
No, I want enough time to be in love with everything . . .
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.
– Marina Keegan, from the poem “Bygones”

I rarely post book reviews; however, after reading THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS: ESSAYS AND STORIES by Marina Keegan, I felt compelled to do so. Sadly, the sublimity of Keegan’s writing is nearly overshadowed by the tragic automobile accident that took her life at the age of 23. I say “nearly” because it would be a disservice to what was her emerging literary genius to focus on anything but her precocious talent. And I know that “genius” is a strong word to use for such a young writer who was only on the cusp of what promised to be not only an accomplished writing career but, based on her stories and essays, an extraordinary life well-examined, well-chronicled, and well-lived. I’m saddened to think of the keen observations of and insights into life Keegan would have provided us and posterity as she moved through her youth and into middle age and beyond, and I mourn for that loss as well.

Her bio identifies Keegan as “an award-winning author, journalist, playwright, poet, actress, and activist.” She had already interned at the Paris Review, been published in the New York Times, and was poised to begin a prestigious job at the New Yorker. For most, these would be crowning achievements, not resume builders. In my years as a high school literature and composition teacher, I’ve had fewer than a handful of students like Keegan, students whom, both I and they knew, were already better readers, thinkers, and writers than me and for whom the best I could do was not to get in their way, and the best they could do was to humor me. Keegan reminds me of those few students.

Although the quality of her stories and essays is uneven, not atypical of such a young writer, Keegan’s insights into human motivations and behaviors are poignantly spot on, whether the protagonist is college-aged, like the narrator of “Cold Pastoral” or an elderly widow as in “Reading Aloud.” In the former story, a college senior is considering breaking up with her boyfriend, Brian, who had only recently ended another long term relationship, when she receives news that he has died in a car accident. She is contacted by
Brian’s ex, who asks her to retrieve his diary from his room on-campus, fearful of what intimate and potentially-embarrassing details might fall into his parents’ hands should they recover it first. In this and her other stories, Keegan makes no attempt to gloss over the high frequency of sexual activity and substance abuse on college campuses. Awkwardly for the narrator, Brian’s parents, although they barely know her, request that she deliver one of the eulogies at his funeral. After she successfully smuggles the diary from Brian’s room, she reads from it only to learn that he had regrets over breaking up with his previous girlfriend and doubts as to the narrator’s worthiness, which only further complicates her feelings towards him, her self-image, and her role as eulogist. My favorite story of the collection is titled “Reading Aloud.” It’s the story of a widower who volunteers to read to the blind. She is assigned to young man who lives alone in an apartment and who mostly asks her to read utilitarian text which he would transpose onto his computer and into braille on his specialized printer for his later usage. The hook is that as she reads, she performs a deliberate striptease – one item of clothing at a time – until she is reading to him while entirely naked. In the presence of this young man, who is unable to see the effects that aging has wrought on her body, she feels sexy and alive again, just as she had felt when young and naked in the presence of her now deceased husband. It is a powerful story of longing and loss for both the blind man and the widow.

The essays reveal Keegan’s insatiable curiosity with seemingly all things and her remarkable breadth of interests and knowledge. The topics range from a hilarious and heartfelt recounting of her relationship with her first car in “Stability in Motion,” to a touching plea for compassion for all creatures, human and animal, in “Why We Care About Whales,” to a hilarious yet profoundly sad character sketch of a Chicago-based exterminator in “I Kill for Money.” In both her fiction and her essays, Keegan’s keen skills of observation and her ability to capture in words the nuances of being human in an all-too-often inhumane world is on full display. Her mastery of language, both literal and figurative, is apparent throughout, and her themes strike upon universal chords.

I highly recommend THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS for all ages of readers. The title betrays Keegan’s most wished for condition, which despite her clearly-privileged upbringing and any number of available opportunities to pursue careers that promised wealth and status, she had little-to-no interest in, for she knew that the opposite of loneliness was not to be found in either. She intuitively understood that both money and status were empty goals and false gods that, in the end, would have cost her soul, not nourished it. Unquestionably for the attainment of her own hopes and dreams, Marina Keegan died too young but not so young that she was unable to leave an indelible mark on the hearts, minds, and souls of those fortunate enough to discover this one collection of priceless insight into the precious gift that is life. Though not enough, it will have to do.