Colm Toíbín’s novel Brooklyn is as straightforward as its title. Eilis is a young, capable woman in Ireland in the 1950s. Despite her qualifications, she, like many others, is unable to find work. Her mother, her sister Rose, and a priest, who has moved to Brooklyn himself, plan for her to cross to American and begin a life there. She goes, obediently. Eilis is not ambitious, but she is willing. Her complacence is understandable, she is a “good girl.” But as the novel progresses her deferential attitude morphs from beneficial to damaging.
Eilis lodges at the house of an Irish woman with a gaggle of other Irish girls in Brooklyn. Despite America being a different world, Toíbín doesn’t spend a lot of time describing the changes in locale. He manages the new terrain firmly but without exaggerated emphasis. Toíbín’s character is adaptable; Eilis manages America as she does most things, without protest. But there are subtle moments of conflict. Toíbín stages a well-calculated encounter with race and there is a moment of uncomfortable boundaries crossed in Eilis’s relationship with a co-worker. She must face small moments of class discrepancy in the society that is more elastic than Ireland’s but still divided.
Eilis doesn’t spend her time making friends, She works hard at the department store where she has a position even though the work is below her qualifications. When homesickness catches up with her, night classes in bookkeeping are arranged to keep her busy. Her force of will allows this to be enough to help her mend and her willing intelligence aids her success. By and large her American life is dull.
Eventually, a young man appears on the canvas of the novel. Tony chooses her unequivocally and Eilis is carried along compliantly, but without much enthusiasm. Tony is a very good man. He is not Irish but Italian and Eilis has trouble explaining to her sister that in America his low status as a plumber is not a reflection of who he is as a man. Toíbín manages to depict Tony as a good, solid and dependable person without making him boring. He is simply loveable. But one wonders if Eilis is the one to love him. Moments pass in which she seems the happy object of his affection only to be followed by an almost violent desire to keep her distance.
In the last third of the novel, Eilis is called back to Ireland. Like most of the major decisions in her life, this one is made for her, shaped by extenuating circumstances. Her return is meant to be temporary but as Eilis faces the familiarity of her past Brooklyn, its heights and depths, begin to fade. With the reality of her new life paling in comparison her old one, Eilis is finally forced to confront her uncertainties.
Eilis is likeable and the reader is invested in her choices. It remains difficult for anyone to decide the “right” path for the heroine. America has transformed her into a person who stands out in a place where she had comfortably been part of the background. Her emergence from the shadows makes Eilis more certain of her worth but less confident of the choices she made in the past.
Toíbín artfully and shrewdly builds the simple novel to a point of irrevocable change and choice. He constructs a branching of opportunity and shows how easily one sort of life can be forever altered. Eilis’s initial, endearing complacency has unforeseen repercussions that suggests the necessity of always employing one’s own judgment rather than following someone else’s lead, however benign.