Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Title: Brooklyn
Author: Colm Toibin
Genre: Fiction / historical fiction

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

Sometimes the very last page of the book changes the way you feel about the entire thing. That was the case for me with Brooklyn. I ended up liking this book way more than I thought I would even when I was 80% of the way through. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, and I thought this novel was mostly bland–Toibin is not the sort of author who writes an engaging or interesting description of bookkeeping, working on the shop floor, or even boardinghouse drama, and yet that is what he chooses to put on the page. I think this would have made an excellent short story, but I did not find enough good material here to stretch to 250 pages.

The book starts slow and stays slow–I would even say dull. Although I liked what Toibin ultimately did with some of the themes–permanence and memory and identity and inevitability and decision-making (is decision-making a theme? let’s say it is)–these didn’t seem to emerge until near the end of the book. There was a lot of set up and the pay off, while satisfying, was too little too late for me to really embrace this book. The writing was stiff, it seemed like it was at this odd distance, like there was a barrier that, except in a few rare cases, prevented me from feeling emotion in relation to the characters, which in turn prevented attachment to them. I never really got a sense of Eilis, the main character, and although that may have been intentional, it did make for a frustrating reading experience. The book ended up being more complex and satisfying than I thought it would be for the first 90% of it, but it still lacked a certain depth throughout.

Eilis was so very passive, and part of what this book explores is a shifting sense of self, how people change based on context, and passivity/restraint. So with a changing context and an indecisive character, I can see how she may not have a sense of her own self. However, she seemed such a weak character; there are characters who are indecisive or struggling with identity that the reader nonetheless gets a very strong sense of, because they are written effectively (Holden Caulfield comes to mind). Eilis, I’m sorry to say, was kind of boring, because the writing used in her story was kind of boring. There was a lot of “not going to think about this lalala,” “not going to think about that lalala,” and I didn’t understand where the need for this avoidance was coming from. Are we supposed to think that all women in the 1950s were this restrained? Or is it supposed to be an Irish thing? Or a combination? There weren’t enough clues to evoke a setting where this sort of behavior was necessary or common, and in fact there are a couple indications that this restraint was not a characteristic for women, Irish people, Irish women, Irish women immigrants, etc., across the board, which makes Eilis’s insistent passivity seem in further need of development or explaining. Is she afraid? Of what? Why?

After letting the book settle for a couple days, I’m wondering if I should bump it up to 4 stars… however, despite the fact that there’s more to it than how it appears at first, and despite appreciating what it did well, I still found it to be missing something important.

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