four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
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0

A-BrooklynDublin author Colm Tóibín, described as a "writer’s writer," has published both fiction and nonfiction and has been short-listed twice for the Booker Prize—for The Blackwater Lightship and, most recently, for The Master ( 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2004). Recently reviewed: Mothers and Sons ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2007).

The Story: In 1950s Enniscorthy, Ireland, the passive, unassuming Eilis Lacey feels stifled in her small-town environment. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she leaves behind her widowed mother and sister for a new life. Adapting to New York’s novel ways, Eilis finds both work in a department store and love in Tony, an Italian plumber who slowly wins her over. But just as Eilis falls in love with her beau and starts to carve a new identity for herself in America, distressing news from Ireland prompts her immediate return—and Eilis, never a go-getter, must remain true to her heart as she chooses between her old life and her new.
Scribner. 272 pages. $25. ISBN: 1439138311

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Eilis herself is an interesting character, less defenceless and more troubled than she initially seems, and the novel uncovers the ‘dark, uncertain’ areas within her with a very light touch. Her rejection of her landlady’s proffered friendship, and her encounter with her sexually wistful female boss, are handled as delicately as any scene Tóibín has done, although here and there his delicacy doesn’t exclude a note of ribald amusement as well as worldly melancholy." Christopher Tayler

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The current preferred myth is that we are, or at least should be, or should want to be, in control of our own lives. By capturing the unspectacular arbitrariness of Eilis’s experiences so convincingly, Tóibín subjects this myth to a thorough and calmly intelligent kicking." James Walton

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"While akin to his previous novels, Brooklyn is Tóibín’s most subdued, reflecting its main character’s inner life, where access to her profoundest emotions and needs and her capacity to articulate them for herself are deeply buried. It is an intimate novel about a woman—and a community and culture—crippled by an inability to find or express intimacy." Floyd Skloot

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Slowly, equably, and without malice, Eilis exacts a bittersweet revenge for the expatriation she never intended—or, rather, one unfolds for her unsought, organically. … [Tóibín] shows no condescension for Eilis’s passivity but records her cautious adventures matter-of-factly, as if she were writing them herself in her journal." Liesl Schillinger

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Eilis is almost a parody of 1950s femininity. … The ending of Brooklyn is a masterpiece of quiet reflection, bringing up deep emotions submerged under the placid exterior and giving the novel an ache that will linger for days." Yvonne Zipp

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Tóibín’s tributes to old New York, both in landscape and disposition, beautifully reflect on a time past, but it’s Eilis’ universal struggles with matters of the heart that make this novel such a moving, deeply satisfying read." Aly Semigran

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"He has made a worn, even a stale story (such a caveat deserves more than a parenthesis: The first part of Brooklyn is largely a chore) into something more complex and distinctive, and it can have no easy ending." Richard Eder

Critical Summary

At first, Brooklyn may seem like a weaving together of the traditional, even stereotypical, threads of an immigrant story, a 1950s love story, and a tale of a woman’s struggle for independence. But, critics soon discovered, the novel is so much more. Perhaps Tóibín’s greatest feat is his sensitive, respectful portrayal of Eilis—an uncritical, unsophisticated, compliant, and perhaps, according to some reviewers, too naïve young woman. The author accomplishes "an almost impossible characterization: the heroine as doormat," praised the Christian Science Monitor. Tóibín’s prose, as usual, sparkles with clarity and insight. As he unburies powerful emotions about love, freedom, authenticity, and duty, as well as resolving Eilis’s dilemma of the heart, he elevates his sixth novel far above its peers.