Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
My book club got together this week to discuss Brooklyn, and while many of us were disappointed in the ending (not enough of it, for us) we agreed that Tóibín's prose was excellent and his storyline could be read on multiple levels. For the "good story, quick read," set, Tóibín offers a coming-of-age in America story that is set in the early 1950s, and has elements of a love story and an immigrant (sad to leave home) story that are given their due.
For those who like to read a little more deeply, there is an element of an era that is not often revisited, since today's young girls don't know about or understand a need for Women's Lib. Eilis Lacey has recently finished her schooling in her hometown in Ireland, is good with numbers, pleasant and polite, and has a part-time job in a shop which she didn't apply for, she was summoned to it. When the Irish priest from Brooklyn arrives, Eilis' sister Rose makes a deal with him to send Eilis over to America, where she will live in a ladies only rooming house and work in a department store. She takes night classes at Brooklyn College. Eilis always believed she'd work a while and get married, quit the job and raise a family. It is, after all, the thing girls did. And when her mother and sister make this decision for her, Eilis never says what she wants, or how she feels about leaving. I think this is typical of that time, as I know my own mother was told, in 1949, a year before she finished high school, that she would return to New York (she'd been living in Oklahoma) to live with her grandmother and aunt, finish high school there and then go on to Flushing Hospital where she would complete her nurse's training as a resident student. The adults discussed it, and my mother complied. And we wonder why women burned their bras?
Eilis romance with Tony, the Italian boy who sneaks into the Irish parish dance, is even out of her control. Eilis likes Tony, there's no doubt, but he professes his love in such a way that she can hardly refuse. When she is called back to Ireland for a family crisis, Tony does everything he can to ensure her return.
Will Eilis stay in Ireland, where she is surely needed, and wanted? Did any women of her time get to decide their own fate?