Rethinking The American Saga In 'Brooklyn' Book critic Maureen Corrigan says the most remarkable aspect of Colm Toibin's new novel is its heroine, a "plain Jane" Irish immigrant with limited options.


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Rethinking The American Saga In 'Brooklyn'

Rethinking The American Saga In 'Brooklyn'

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By Colm Toibin
Hardcover, 256 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $25

Colm Toibin is also the author of BlackWater Lightship, The Master, and Mothers and Sons. Simon & Schuster hide caption

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Simon & Schuster

Colm Toibin is also the author of BlackWater Lightship, The Master, and Mothers and Sons.

Simon & Schuster

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It's a quandary that even the best novelists have a hard time writing their way out of: How do you tell a story about a main character who's "ordinary" without making that character "extraordinary" simply because he or she is always in the novel's spotlight?

Think about it. If, as a reader, you stick with Ishmael or Mrs. Dalloway or Plain Jane Eyre long enough, you come to see them as uncommon in some way — maybe especially perceptive or plucky. But, in his latest novel, Brooklyn, Colm Toibin places his mundane heroine under some kind of magical force field that rebuffs all our desires to mistakenly "read more" into her.

The most remarkable thing about young Eilis Lacey is that she's nothing special; this novel, in contrast, really is something special, partly because humdrum heroines like Eilis are so scarce and certainly because of the period atmosphere and moral complexity of Eilis' story. Toibin — who's demonstrated in previous novels like The Master and Mothers and Sons that he can render just about any subject and mood — is beautifully restrained here, up until the ending, when he delivers a sucker punch worthy of his own "master," Henry James.

The (always-suspect) book jacket plot summary of Brooklyn declares that it's set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, "when one young woman crosses the ocean to make a new life for herself."

That last statement is wrong, wrong, wrong. Eilis doesn't "make a new life for herself"; she acquiesces to other people's plans. She drifts and, in doing so, she ultimately crashes and causes emotional wreckage.

Eilis and her older sister, Rose, live with their widowed mother in a small village in Ireland. Because the post-World War II Irish economy is so flat, the three brothers in the family have already immigrated to England. When Rose — a glamorous, go-getter, the obvious heroine of a more obvious novel — makes the acquaintance of a visiting priest named Father Flood, she persuades him to sponsor Eilis and find her a job in Brooklyn where his parish is located. Eilis passively goes along. Here's how Toibin deftly captures her neither-fish-nor-fowl feelings about the new life opening up before her:

Until now, Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done ... the same routines in the same streets ... Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared, and this, despite the fear it carried with it, gave her a feeling, ... she might experience in the days [,say,] before her wedding, ... days in which she herself was fizzy with excitement but careful not to think too precisely about what the next few weeks would be like in case she lost her nerve.

Still in a daze, Eilis finds herself in a third-class cabin on an ocean liner bound for New York; on her first night, she vomits up her dinner of peas and mutton all over that room and the hallway outside because more experienced passengers have already locked themselves into the common bathroom. Arriving in Brooklyn, Eilis is settled into a boarding house, night school classes in bookkeeping and a job as a salesclerk at a local department store — all thanks to Father Flood again. As he boasts to Eilis, "It's a funny place, Brooklyn ... As long as the guy in charge is not Norwegian ... then I can pull strings most places."

Eilis even meets a sweet young Italian-American plumber named Tony at a parish dance. Tony wants to marry Eilis and have kids. Eilis thinks she might love him. But, summoned back to Ireland because of a family tragedy, Eilis begins to feel Tony and her life in America fading, like a dream. Maybe she'll stay in Ireland. There's a nice guy there, too.

Twice throughout Brooklyn Toibin writes extended scenes in which Eilis is bobbing in the ocean — an emblematic image for a girl who allows herself to be pushed and pulled by the tides of happenstance and other people's decisions. Because he creates and sustains such an everyday character throughout this small gem of a novel, Toibin invites readers to rethink the familiar heroic version of the coming-to-America saga in which immigrants actively seize their own destinies along with large concepts like "freedom" and "possibility." Eilis' muted vacillation makes for a more profound story about ordinary limited options that also feels a lot closer to the emotional truth of the huddled masses.

Excerpt: 'Brooklyn'

By Colm Toibin
Hardcover, 272 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $25

Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work. She watched Rose crossing the street from sunlight into shade, carrying the new leather handbag that she had bought in Clerys in Dublin in the sale. Rose was wearing a cream-coloured cardigan over her shoulders. Her golf clubs were in the hall; in a few minutes, Eilis knew, someone would call for her and her sister would not return until the summer evening had faded.

Eilis's bookkeeping classes were almost ended now; she had a manual on her lap about systems of accounting, and on the table behind her was a ledger where she had entered, as her homework, on the debit and credit sides, the daily business of a company whose details she had taken down in notes in the Vocational School the week before.

As soon as she heard the front door open, Eilis went downstairs. Rose, in the hall, was holding her pocket mirror in front of her face. She was studying herself closely as she applied lipstick and eye make-up before glancing at her overall appearance in the large hall mirror, settling her hair. Eilis looked on silently as her sister moistened her lips and then checked herself one more time in the pocket mirror before putting it away.

Their mother came from the kitchen to the hall.

"You look lovely, Rose," she said. "You'll be the belle of the golf club."

"I'm starving," Rose said, "but I've no time to eat."

"I'll make a special tea for you later," her mother said. "Eilis and myself are going to have our tea now."

Rose reached into her handbag and took out her purse. She placed a one-shilling piece on the hallstand. "That's in case you want to go to the pictures," she said to Eilis.

"And what about me?" her mother asked.

"She'll tell you the story when she gets home," Rose replied.

"That's a nice thing to say!" her mother said.

All three laughed as they heard a car stop outside the door and beep its horn. Rose picked up her golf clubs and was gone.

Later, as her mother washed the dishes and Eilis dried them, another knock came to the door. When Eilis answered it, she found a girl whom she recognized from Kelly's grocery shop beside the cathedral.

"Miss Kelly sent me with a message for you," the girl said. "She wants to see you."

"Does she?" Eilis asked. "And did she say what it was about?"

"No. You're just to call up there tonight."

"But why does she want to see me?"

"God, I don't know, miss. I didn't ask her. Do you want me to go back and ask her?"

"No, it's all right. But are you sure the message is for me?"

"I am, miss. She says you are to call in on her."

Since she had decided in any case to go to the pictures some other evening, and being tired of her ledger, Eilis changed her dress and put on a cardigan and left the house. She walked along Friary Street and Rafter Street into the Market Square and then up the hill to the cathedral. Miss Kelly's shop was closed, so Eilis knocked on the side door, which led to the upstairs part where she knew Miss Kelly lived. The door was answered by the young girl who had come to the house earlier, who told her to wait in the hall.

Eilis could hear voices and movement on the floor above and then the young girl came down and said that Miss Kelly would be with her before long.

She knew Miss Kelly by sight, but her mother did not deal in her shop as it was too expensive. Also, she believed that her mother did not like Miss Kelly, although she could think of no reason for this. It was said that Miss Kelly sold the best ham in the town and the best creamery butter and the freshest of everything including cream, but Eilis did not think she had ever been in the shop, merely glanced into the interior as she passed and noticed Miss Kelly at the counter.

Miss Kelly slowly came down the stairs into the hallway and turned on a light.

"Now," she said, and repeated it as though it were a greeting. She did not smile.

Eilis was about to explain that she had been sent for, and to ask politely if this was the right time to come, but Miss Kelly's way of looking her up and down made her decide to say nothing. Because of Miss Kelly's manner, Eilis wondered if she had been offended by someone in the town and had mistaken her for that person.

"Here you are, then," Miss Kelly said.

Eilis noticed a number of black umbrellas resting against the hallstand.

"I hear you have no job at all but a great head for figures."

"Is that right?"

"Oh, the whole town, anyone who is anyone, comes into the shop and I hear everything."

Eilis wondered if this was a reference to her own mother's consistent dealing in another grocery shop, but she was not sure. Miss Kelly's thick glasses made the expression on her face difficult to read.

"And we are worked off our feet every Sunday here. Sure, there's nothing else open. And we get all sorts, good, bad and indifferent. And, as a rule, I open after seven mass, and between the end of nine o'clock mass until eleven mass is well over, there isn't room to move in this shop. I have Mary here to help, but she's slow enough at the best of times, so I was on the lookout for someone sharp, someone who would know people and give the right change. But only on Sundays, mind. The rest of the week we can manage ourselves. And you were recommended. I made inquiries about you and it would be seven and six a week, it might help your mother a bit."

Miss Kelly spoke, Eilis thought, as though she were describing a slight done to her, closing her mouth tightly between each phrase.

"So that's all I have to say now. You can start on Sunday, but come in tomorrow and learn off all the prices and we'll show you how to use the scales and the slicer. You'll have to tie your hair back and get a good shop coat in Dan Bolger's or Burke O'Leary's."

Eilis was already saving this conversation for her mother and Rose; she wished she could think of something smart to say to Miss Kelly without being openly rude. Instead, she remained silent.

"Well?" Miss Kelly asked.

Eilis realized that she could not turn down the offer. It would be better than nothing and, at the moment, she had nothing.

"Oh, yes, Miss Kelly," she said. "I'll start whenever you like."

"And on Sunday you can go to seven o'clock mass. That's what we do, and we open when it's over."

"That's lovely," Eilis said.

"So, come in tomorrow, then. And if I'm busy I'll send you home, or you can fill bags of sugar while you wait, but if I'm not busy, I'll show you all the ropes."

"Thank you, Miss Kelly," Eilis said.

"Your mother'll be pleased that you have something. And your sister," Miss Kelly said. "I hear she's great at the golf. So go home now like a good girl. You can let yourself out."

Miss Kelly turned and began to walk slowly up the stairs. Eilis knew as she made her way home that her mother would indeed be happy that she had found some way of making money of her own, but that Rose would think working behind the counter of a grocery shop was not good enough for her. She wondered if Rose would say this to her directly.

On her way home she stopped at the house of her best friend Nancy Byrne to find that their friend Annette O'Brien was also there. The Byrnes had only one room downstairs, which served as a kitchen, dining room and sitting room, and it was clear that Nancy had news of some sort to impart, some of which Annette seemed already to know. Nancy used Eilis's arrival as an excuse to go out for a walk so they could talk in confidence.

"Did something happen?" Eilis asked once they were on the street.

"Say nothing until we are a mile away from that house," Nancy said. "Mammy knows there's something, but I'm not telling her."

They walked down Friary Hill and across the Mill Park Road to the river and then down along the prom towards the Ringwood.

"She got off with George Sheridan," Annette said.

"When?" Eilis asked.

"At the dance in the Athenaeum on Sunday night," Nancy said.

"I thought you weren't going to go."

"I wasn't and then I did."

"She danced all night with him," Annette said.

"I didn't, just the last four dances, and then he walked me home. But everybody saw. I'm surprised you haven't heard."

"And are you going to see him again?" Eilis asked.

"I don't know." Nancy sighed. "Maybe I'll just see him on the street. He drove by me yesterday and beeped the horn. If there had been anyone else there, I mean anyone of his sort, he would have danced with her, but there wasn't. He was with Jim Farrell, who just stood there looking at us."

"If his mother finds out, I don't know what she'll say," Annette said. "She's awful. I hate going into that shop when Jim isn't there. My mother sent me down once to get two rashers and that old one told me she didn't sell rashers in twos."

Eilis then told them that she had been offered a job serving in Miss Kelly's every Sunday.

"I hope you told her what to do with it," Nancy said.

"I told her I'd take it. It won't do any harm. It means I might be able to go to the Athenaeum with you using my own money and prevent you being taken advantage of."

"It wasn't like that," Nancy said. "He was nice."

"Are you going to see him again?" Eilis repeated.

"Will you come with me on Sunday night?" Nancy asked Eilis. "He mightn't even be there, but Annette can't come, and I'm going to need support in case he is there and doesn't even ask me to dance or doesn't even look at me."

"I might be too tired from working for Miss Kelly."

"But you'll come?"

"I haven't been there for ages," Eilis said. "I hate all those country fellows, and the town fellows are worse. Half drunk and just looking to get you up the Tan Yard Lane."

"George isn't like that," Nancy said.

"He's too stuck up to go near the Tan Yard Lane," Annette said.

"Maybe we'll ask him if he'd consider selling rashers in twos in future," Eilis said.

"Say nothing to him," Nancy said. "Are you really going to work for Miss Kelly? There's a one for rashers."

From Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Copyright © 2009 by Colm Toibin. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y.