It wasn’t until I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s latest novel on Sunday that I noticed no review for Brooklyn, which I was sure I had read. I looked back at my old records, and sure enough, I read it in March 2016, but mistakenly removed the flag from my notes that indicates I haven’t reviewed it yet. So, here goes.
Brooklyn is a quiet story set in post-World War II Ireland and New York. It is about the tension between yearning for home and desiring to make your own way in the world.
Eilis Lacey has finished a bookkeeping course and is eager for work, but the only job she can find in her small Irish home town is clerking at Miss Kelly’s store on Sunday mornings. Her brothers have emigrated to England for work, and the family is supported by her older sister Rose, who works as a bookkeeper. Rose wants more for Eilis, so she arranges for Father Flood, a visiting priest, to find Eilis a job in Brooklyn.
The best he can do for her is a clerk’s job in a department store, Bartocci’s. Eilis enjoys her job, but she is frightfully homesick and does not much enjoy living in Mrs. Kehoe’s boardinghouse. Reasoning that being busy will make her less homesick, Father Flood signs her up for courses at Brooklyn College.
Soon, she is making a new life for herself, doing well in her courses, and even finding a boyfriend, a cheerful Italian plumber named Tony. She is finally settling into her new life when something unexpected occurs that takes her back to Ireland and a choice between her two lives.
Written in Tóibín’s graceful prose, Brooklyn is a quiet but powerful character study and exploration of the immigrant experience in post-World War II America.
The Empty Family
Daniel Sullivan is about to leave Ireland for a business trip when he catches a segment of a radio broadcast more than 20 years old. He hears the voice of Nicola Janks, his old girlfriend. When he learns she died in 1986, the year he last saw her, he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, fearing he was responsible for her death.
Unfortunately, he is unable to explain this concern to his wife, Claudette. Instead, she hears from his family about his erratic behavior. He is supposed to visit his 90-year-old father in Brooklyn but stays only a few minutes before abruptly leaving to visit his children from his first marriage.
These are the first events in a series that will change his life. But O’Farrell is interested in more than these events. In chapters ranging back and forth over 30 years and switching point of view among the characters, she tells about the lives of many of them, of Claudette, the reclusive ex-movie star; of Daniel; of Daniel’s children and Claudette’s children; of Daniel’s mother; even of some of the novel’s secondary characters.
I came late to O’Farrell and so far have only read two books by her, but I’ve enjoyed them immensely. She catches you with her complex plots but keeps you with her characterizations.
After You’d Gone
Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Prue Winship grows up the oldest daughter of a gin distiller in 18th century Brooklyn. Her father having failed to have sons, he brings her into the distillery as an apprentice when she is 14, and she learns to run it. She doesn’t expect, though, that her father’s early death will leave her and her sister Temperance in charge of it.
Despite the preoccupations of running a business, Prue has another dream—to build a bridge across the East River into New York. Many have tried to design one, but nothing has been proposed that would not obstruct water traffic for hours. Prue thinks she has an idea that would work.
This seems like it would be a book I would enjoy, but I could not get going in it. I gave it an effort, but after six days of reading, I still wasn’t into it and hadn’t reached the halfway mark. (Usually six days is enough for me to read most works of fiction, no matter how long. Often in six days I have read two or three novels.) I still had about 300 pages to read when I decided to stop. I couldn’t put my finger on my problem. The novel was well written and on an interesting subject. However, it was very slow moving and kept relating the heroine’s dreams. There is nothing more boring than a dream in fiction, I think. Finally, I dimly remember reading a book on this same subject, the distillery and the bridge, years ago, although I am fairly sure it was not this one. So, not the book for me despite its good reviews in the press.
Parrot and Olivier in America