Fiction: “Brooklyn” by Colm Tóibín

BrooklynIn a way, it’s a good thing that I’m currently suffering from a huge bout of Book ADD. I’m still reading the 800-page behemoth that is the biography of Alexander Hamilton (asked of me at the gym yesterday, coming off of my 30-minute bike workout: “What on earth is that light reading you’ve got going on there?”), but I have no interest in any other books. Nor do I have any idea of what I’m going to read when A dot Ham is through. [[iTunes, did you just pull up “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”? Goddammit – let’s see if I can get through this track without crying for once]]

This book ADD is awful, because look, I like reading in bed: lying prone in silence helps me fall asleep. And as interesting as the Alexander Hamilton biography is, it is hard as fuck to fall asleep while reading a book that, should it land on your face, could cause your septum to deviate from the force of the fall.

But the good side to only reading one book at lunch time for the time being is: ostensibly, I should have the ability to complete a few reviews and get almost caught up before my sister gets married at the end of the month. So – here we go.

Brooklyn was the last title I was able to get for my Oscar!Watch!Read project. It’s the story of Eilis Lacey (pronounced Eye-liss), the youngest girl in an Irish family, who emigrates to America – Brooklyn, to be specific – in the 1950s in the hopes of bettering her life. Her brothers have all moved to England to find employment; her sister, Rose, works as an accountant in a mill. Eilis wanted to follow in her sister’s footsteps, but the opportunity simply isn’t there. Also not there are decent prospects for dating and marriage; none of the men in her age group show her any interest.

Rose corresponds with Father Flood, a priest from their hometown who currently resides in Brooklyn. Through their efforts, they are able to send Eilis to Brooklyn to find work and take classes towards an accounting degree. Eilis makes the journey by herself, and comes down with an awful case of seasickness. Her berthmate gives her tips on how to survive the rest of the week’s journey, and when she reaches Ellis Island she moves through the emigration line smoothly.

She has a room with Mrs. Keough, another Irish lady who runs a boarding house of other Irish ladies. They all work during the week, have dinner together at night, go out dancing on Saturdays and to church on Sundays. At first, Eilis is terribly homesick – the letters to and from Ireland do not arrive rapidly. Her sadness begins to permeate her every moment, including her shifts on the sales floor of the department store where she works. Unlike some other department stores where I’ve worked, Eilis’s manager asks her what’s wrong, and brings in Father Flood for guidance.

At one of the Saturday night dances, Eilis meets Tony Fiorello, an Italian plumber who has a thing for Irish girls. He sweetly walks her home, and they begin dating. Over time – between Eilis’s classes at the local night college, making friends with her fellow boarders, and her dates and time spent with Tony – Eilis’s homesickness goes away. Before she (and the reader) knows it, a year has passed, and Eilis is beginning to see her future in a home with Tony on Long Island.

And then, Rose passes away suddenly. Eilis goes back home to help her mother at the behest of her brothers. But because she loves Tony, and he wants an assurance that she’ll come back to him, they secretly marry before she sails back to Ireland. She is supposed to be gone for only a month. When she gets there, her mother simply assumes she’s back for good, and the assumptions pile on so quickly and effortlessly that Eilis finds herself buried underneath them – she is unable to tell her mother that she met anyone, let alone married him. Her best friend is getting married in six weeks, and it’s assumed that Eilis will stay for the ceremony, so Eilis finds herself writing to New York to extend her stay.

Meanwhile, her friend (whose name escapes me – sorry!) and her friend’s fiance ask Eilis to come out with them, and they bring Jim along – Jim being one of the boys who wouldn’t pay attention to her when she lived in town, but now that she’s lived in America she’s interesting. Eilis finds herself drawn to Jim, and there starts to be a chance that maybe she won’t return to Tony …

Brooklyn is a very quiet, pretty book. The only drama to speak of is all internal to Eilis’s thoughts and desires, and the translation of those thoughts and desires into words are beautifully-written. I was going to call the story “elegiac,” but then I found out that I’ve been using that word incorrectly all these years, because the story isn’t “mournful” whatsoever.

It’s … elegant? No, it’s like … hm. I thought I had the perfect word. Serene? Aside from whatever inner turmoil Eilis experiences? And even then, the turmoil seems minimal. Dammit, I am not as good at this as I thought.

Okay, clearly I don’t have the right word. The feeling, as best as I can figure, would be akin to floating down a lazy river in an innertube, like you used to be able to do at one of the waterparks at Disney World. The world is serene, and quiet, and you are connected to your thoughts because that’s all you have, but your thoughts are pleasant and good. You drift where the current takes you, and maybe you make a decision – left fork, right fork? – but the decision doesn’t have a lot of tension surrounding it. Whatever happens, happens, but you’re directing your own current.

And that’s what Eilis is doing in Brooklyn. At first, the decision for her to move to Brooklyn wasn’t really hers – Rose and Father Flood worked together to present her with this option of moving to America, and she took it because she knew how much Rose wanted it for her to prosper. When she got to Brooklyn, she was out of sorts. She threw herself into her studies, worked hard at her job, and then had the strength of confidence to find herself happy with Tony. Rose suddenly passes, and now Eilis is at her fork in the stream: does she go back to Ireland to help her mother, or stay with Tony in Brooklyn? Her decision is made, but not anguished over. Her decision to return to Tony (oh sorry – spoiler alert!) is made quickly, once the time to make that decision arises, but the decision is made with all the conviction in her heart based on the journey she’s taken.

The film is an exceptionally beautiful film. The colors are spectacular, and wonderfully evoke New York City in the 1950s. Saoirse Ronan inhabits Eilis perfectly, and it’s almost too bad she was up against Brie Larson in Room, because any other year, she may have had a chance at the Oscar. It’s such a sweet film, really. Also, should you decide to rent it, make sure you have tissues handy.

Anyway. I finished the Oscar!Watch!Read project in time for the Oscars to air, and I really feel like I was able to get a good grasp of the different degrees to which a film’s script can be adapted from a source material. I have a feeling – because I’m a masochist, first and foremost – that next year, I’m going to try and repeat this performance.

Having said that – hopefully, I’ll finish Alexander Hamilton by then. Even better, I hope to have figured out what I’m going to read after it.

Grade for Brooklyn: 4 stars

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