Brooklyn Summary

Colm Toibin


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Brooklyn Summary

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Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn is a mature coming of age story about a young woman who emigrates to America. In the 1950s, Eilis Lacey is living in Ireland and is unable to find employment. While discussing this with her older sister Rose, she learns that a priest named Father Flood is going to be in town soon, visiting from New York City.

It is common in novels about the immigrant experience for New York, Manhattan, Brooklyn, or any of the boroughs to represent America as a whole, with all of the good and bad that can entail. And so Father Flood arrives, dazzling Eilis with stories about the unparalleled opportunities that New York has to offer. She need not stay in Ireland to languish, but has only to book passage overseas and reap the bounty.

Shortly after arriving in America, Eilis is working at a dull job in a department store. At night she takes bookkeeping classes. There is almost nothing of the excitement promised to her by Father Flood, and it is easy for her to second-guess her decision to leave Ireland. Rose and her mother write letters to her that bring about an acute homesickness, but she is determined to give Brooklyn more of a chance.

Soon she has fallen in love with a plumber named Tony Fiorello. Tony provides much of what she had hoped to find in America. He is passionate, fun, funny, and loving. As their relationship deepens, Eilis can see a future with him, even meeting his family and beginning to discuss long-term plans as they realize that they truly love each other.

During a visit with Father Flood, she learns that her sister Rose has died. She had a pre-existing heart condition that none of them had known about. Eilis knows that she must return to Ireland to mourn properly. She hastily marries Tony in secret before leaving, and departs. Once she is back in her small town in Ireland, she wonders what it was that made her so desperate to leave. The ways of the town seem to suit her better now, and she quickly adapts to the routine, despite being devastated by the loss of her sister.

While spending time with friends, she reconnects with a man named Jim to whom she was attracted before leaving the first time. It is easy with Jim, and they have a brief relationship. Eilis is conflicted. As a married woman, she feels guilt over her betrayal of Tony, and her reluctance to return to America. Matters are made worse by the fact that her mother is desperate for her to commit to staying in Ireland. Eilis still has not told anyone of her secret marriage, and the strain begins to wear her down. She decides to lengthen her stay, just to put off the decision for a little longer.

Soon after, Eilis learns from the town gossip, Miss Kelly, that her secret is not as safe as she thought. Miss Kelly’s cousin lives in New York and apparently everyone there knows about the secret marriage. At this point, Eilis feels she has no choice, however, the idea of returning to America, and to her husband, is not an agonizing one, but the right thing to do. Before she leaves, she tells her mother that she married and does not want to keep it secret any longer. She also leaves a note for Jim. The novel ends with her leaving town.

As with many coming of age stories, Brooklyn focuses on the reflection that death, travel, and romantic love force on people at various times in their lives. By setting the book in the 1950s, there is an additional layer to Eilis’s frustrations in the work force. There were only so many jobs a woman could have, and her aspirations seem meager by current standards. Yet, the struggle Eilis, women, and other immigrants face, is universal and will give readers much to ponder as they place themselves in her situation.

Toibin is a thoughtful and talented writer, and the critical reception for Brooklyn has been almost completely positive. It will be of particular interest to readers to whom immigration and homesickness are pivotal. Themes of the mundane routine of everyday life, the expectation that another person can make someone happy, and the obligations of family also underlie most pages. At times, it is hard to feel sympathy for Eilis. Her decisions are typically what make her life harder. However, readers who have ever acted impulsively, for love, for money, for the wish that things would simply be better in another place, may recognize much of themselves in Brooklyn.