BROOKLYN: A NOVEL
The truth is, I had to fish “Brooklyn” out of the Goodwill box. In the van. On its way out of my house, unread. (It was the hardcover version, with its grey, washed out, unworthy cover.)
I had bought it used for $6 at Schuler Books and Music, my favorite indie bookstore, knowing nothing about it except what I read on the back cover.
The story of an Irish girl who moves to Brooklyn in 1950 appealed to me, but the cover did not, for some reason.
I was on one of my Japanese-inspired “spark of Joy” purges when “Brooklyn” got tossed. But then I listened to an interview on NPR, with Saoirse Una Ronan, the star of the then new movie “Brooklyn,” and I was transfixed by her thick-as-Irish-soda-bread brogue, and especially by why she related to the story: Homesickness.
We’ve all been infected by it, and it changes us forever.
I made the connection with this movie and book and the Goodwill box, and my heart sank.
I threw on my rubber boots and ran out into the rain to rescue the book from the back of the van.
The movie appealed to me hugely, with it’s color-soaked, vintage costumes and 50’s aesthetic. But I knew I wanted to read Colm Toibin’s book first, and then see the movie. I’m so glad I did!
The movie went on to be nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Ronan, and the 2009 book was catapulted onto the 2016 bestseller list.
I felt that, aided by Emory Cohen’s gallant, boyish portrayal of Tony, that “Brooklyn” could easily fit into my Literary Crush Book Club. I just wanted to write about this sumptuous book, hence:
* A brief summary of my own thoughts on the book, the writing, the themes and characters.
* Curated links to a few good reviews.
* Talking points for discussion, including those brought up by the physical book club members here in Grand Rapids.
* Quotes about the book’s theme, or from the book. In this case, quotes about homesickness.
* A recipe that fits the book.
So, here goes:
14 Thoughts About “Brooklyn,” the book, and “Brooklyn” the movie:
1. The Cover
I’m a Cover Snob. For whatever deep-seated reasons, I can hardly get into a book if the cover leaves me cold. In most cases, I prefer covers without a movie tie-in, but in the case of “Brooklyn,” because the film was so surrealistically beautiful, I do like the movie tie-in cover–how about you?
Although, I also like this cover, of the paperback version:
The original hardcover version, with its washed out, grey-toned storefront, captured none of “Brooklyn’s” dazzling color. Good thing the contents brought plenty of color and life.
A young Irish woman leaves her stick-in-the-mud village for a new life in 1950’s Brooklyn, New York. Though she experiences tremendous homesickness, she eventually settles in and finds love, until her old life in Ireland calls her back and she is torn between two worlds.
Though sometimes I was frustrated with the book’s main character, Eilis (pronounced “Aye-lish”), I could relate to her on several levels. First of all, as a young woman, she had the personal power of a noodle. She just sort of allows things to happen to her, things like moving to another continent where she knows no one. Yet she grows a bit of starch in her spine by the end, and she becomes more fully formed, stronger. Why was I frustrated? I wanted her to be more openhearted, opening herself to friendship and not being so guarded. Other reasons, too. Spoiler reasons!
4. Indirect Communicating
Early on in the novel, Eilis thinks to herself of her mother and sister that “(t)hey knew so much, every one of them… that they could do everything except say out loud what it was they were thinking.” I wanted her and her sister and mother to say what they wanted, but it’s so hard to do sometimes.
Even despite her horrendous voyage over the ocean (which made me sympathize anew with my immigrant dad, aunts, and grandparents, who also crossed the ocean just two years before Eilis), she is tucked into Brooklyn life quite nicely at first. But that first, longed-for letter from home is like a torpedo, and shatters her with homesickness.
6. This canny review in the New York Times says it well:
Eilis numbs herself against nostalgia until letters from home awaken her homesickness. Then she grieves. “She was nobody here,” she thinks. “It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. . . . Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty.”
7. And here’s a review of the movie, now out on DVD, by my pal, movie critic John Serba
8. Some good quotes about homesickness:
9. Enter Tony
Ahhh, Tony. He is as goodhearted and expansive as any literary leading man I can think of. (Certainly, Toibin’s depiction of men in this book, including the kindly priest who cares so tenderly for Eilis, is noteworthy.) Decent, lovely Tony adores Eilis. If only she could return his feelings in full measure.
10: Suddenly, she sinks new roots
Enfolded by Tony and his family, her priest, her studies, and even her nosy landlady Mrs. Kehoe (a favorite character for her starchy values and tart sense of humor), Eilis begins to bloom where she is planted. She has one foot in Ireland and one in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn changes Eilis, proving her mettle and ability to adapt, and adding a new sheen to her clothing choices and personality. When she returns to Ireland, Brooklyn seems a “strange, hazy dream,” but she is self-aware enough to realize her village life would also now seem that way, should she choose to return to America.
12. Wrenching Scene
When Eilis leaves her mother in Ireland. I have left my widowed mother alone in another country, and every time I do, something in me tears to pieces.
Homesickness is part of the human condition, and its pain is real. But moving from home can also change us in good ways, and transform parts of us that would never grow if we always stayed close to home. Sometimes, if the move is permanent, we may never feel completely at home in our new locale, or the one from which we came.
1. When were you most homesick in your life? For me, it was going to college in Chicago, 16 hours by car from my friends and family and all I had ever known. I grieved my home for months, even as I had a wonderful time, exploring the city and making new friends.
2. Why do you think Eilis was hesitant about her feelings for Tony at first?
3. How did Eilis transform from passive young girl to someone who knew much better her own power and choices?
4. This from the Simon and Schuster Reading Group Guide for Brooklyn:
Imagine Eilis in today’s world. Do you see her primarily as a career-motivated woman, or as a wife and mother?
5. What do you think the cure for homesickness is? Kelli from my book club moved to D.C. as a young woman with her husband. Her mother-in-law gave her some advice: “Tell yourself you will stay there forever, that way you will settle in and make friends.” Do you agree?
6. My book club members felt the tone was “languid, relaxing, almost,” as if Eilis just allowed things to happen to her (as opposed to making things happen.). Do you agree?
7. We all wished for a less abrupt ending. What do you imagine Eilis’ future holds for her?
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If you haven’t read it, what intrigues you about reading it?
How did you enjoy the movie? The casting of Eilis and Tony and Jim etc?