Well perhaps not everyone hated it. Bart didn’t actually read the book, but joined us for the discussion anyway.
Our intentions were good. Frank McCourt had just died, and since just about everyone has already read Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis ’tisn’t that good, and Teacher Man bored me, I felt it would be nice to read another Irish writer in honor of my former high school English teacher, Mr. McCourt.
While perusing Amazon.com, barnesandnobel.com, and the Brooklyn Public Library website, I came across the author Colm Tóibín. A native of Enniscorthy in County Wexford, a place I have actually visited, and currently teaching at Princeton University, a school I did not attend, Mr. Tóibín’s latest book is titled Brooklyn, which happens to be where I currently live. I figured it must be a sign, a portent, kismet, or karma. So much for my second and third choices. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which seemed a little too tough to get into, and The Littlest Stranger, which too closely resembled one of our more popular previous bookclub selections, The Thirteenth Tale. This was the book I would chose for our bookclub.
My thoughts as I read Brooklyn were that it is a very gentle story and that I was glad to have prior knowledge of Ireland and some mid-20th Century Irish/Irish-American history, not to mention the firsthand knowledge of Brooklyn and NYC. It seemed the interesting topics were buried in between the lines and in the subtext of the book. This is not a meaty, get you thinking, bookclub book.
And so we arrived in the conference room for our book club discussion. Question one to the group: what did you think of the book? Carolann and Jill immediately said, “hated it.” Others shrugged and tacidly agreed, “well I didn’t really hate it.” Ugh. First of all the main character, Eilis, simply allows things to happen to her, and doesn’t worry about it one way or another. It was difficult to identify with Eilis as her choices, or rather the lack thereof, go against everything we’ve been brought up to be as 21st century American women. We found some of the secondary characters more intriguing.
Rose, Eilis’ older sister, has a vibrancy and dynamicism with a whole life behind the scenes that teases the reader. Why does Rose do the things she does? Who are her friends? Who is in on her secret (and is there more to the secret than is revealed?)
Tony, the light-haired, Italian-American lives in a two-room, Bay Ridge apartment with his parents and three younger brothers, while couring Eilis. His dream of an idyllic life in suburban Long Island, so closely resembles the aspirations of many children of immigrants at that time. Why does he pursue Eilis? Why isn’t Eilis’ Irish heritage a problem for Tony’s very Italian family?
Father Flood, the priest who arranges Eilis’ life in America. He orchestrates her housing, her job, and even arranges for her to attend school at Brooklyn College. How many women has he done this for, and why?
As Bart, the one participant who didn’t read the book, suggested, perhaps someone should write the parallel stories of these characters, in the same manner as we read Ender’s Game from Bean’s perspective in Ender’s Shadow.
Secondly, Tóibín spends so much time with Eilis’s naive observances, and yet does not create a sense of place. Her story could take place anywhere: Detroit, London, even Dublin, a short distance from her hometown. There is little description of Eilis’ world. Her observances are more about the way people act and behave. We, as the reader, are aware of what the characters say and don’t say, and do or don’t do. Eilis is not. Times are changing around Eilis. The Holocaust is over, but she isn’t even aware that it happened. Life is changing for African-Americans in Brooklyn, and Eilis is unaffected, even in her job as a floor clerk in a department store that is desegregating. And although she falls in love with an Italian-American, her fear of revealing the fact has less to do with his ethnicity and more to do with her distance from home.
Finally, with no twist, no big revelation at the end, there was a sense of disappointment at the end of the book. Tóibín’s writing style had me, at least, interested in reading some of his earlier work. His exploration of identity seems to be a common theme, and perhaps works more effectively in The Heather Blazing or The South. But overall, Brooklyn offered a disappointing read, discussion, and book club experience.
Carolann sent us off in an excited tizzy with the revelation of her choice for our next book club selection. Her prescription for what ails us…Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study In Scarlet ($3.15 in the Dover Thrift Edition).