Saturday, April 23, 2016
Brooklyn - Colm Toibin (2009)
I've never read anything by Colm Toibin before. I'd imagine for many people that Brooklyn will be their first introduction. This is also something of a first for Flying Houses: the first time a book has been reviewed where the critic has seen the film adaptation first.
Is the book better than the movie? Yes. Is the movie vastly inferior? No. In fact, the adaptation is remarkably well done. There are still a few tiny details that bother me, things that got left out of the movie to keep the story smaller, but generally I wanted to cry throughout almost the entire running time (though it may have been partially due to my mood that day). The book is not really that much better until the end.
I might have mentioned something about the movie getting a good review from a very tough critic for the Redeye to my friend Juan, and he suddenly recalled that he had read it after he left Brooklyn in 2013, shortly before writing his review of Anna Karenina. We went to see the film. Then, shortly after the experience previously reported, of picking out the latest Murakami from the Humboldt Park CPL, he returned the next day with War and Peace, Brooklyn and Howl's Moving Castle. He said I should read Brooklyn so I did that.
The plot is fairly simple, and depends on how much one intends to spoil. I believe the trailer for the film gave away a significant portion of the plot, and all I will say is that it is an account of an Irish girl's immigration to the U.S. It is is not giving away too much to say she enters into a romantic relationship with a young man named Tony, but anything beyond that, I will refrain from mentioning--which is a shame because much of the most beautiful writing comes at the end (including the near-perfect, final, bittersweet sentence). Maybe after some asterisks, I'll discuss the ending.
Basically, this is a very good book, but I felt sort of disinterested by it up until the end. That's not totally accurate, but I just mean sometimes I will have it with me at my office desk and I'll eat lunch and have it open in front of me and I'll glance off and read something on the internet instead. Maybe in a way the opening is kind of boring and slow, but by the third act a plot has certainly developed.
It is perhaps worth noting that my former roommate Gavin was also Irish and went to see the film and remarked that the practices of changing into one's swimwear at the beach, rather than wearing it under their clothes, was a quirky and accurate Irish thing.
The girl's name is Eilis and she lives with her mother and older sister Rose, who is about 30 and a great golfer and popular person about town. As the novel opens Eilis gets a job with Ms. Kelly, who runs an expensive and popular grocery store in town. Soon after, a priest from their neighborhood returns to visit from the U.S. and tells their family about all of the Irish transplants in Brooklyn and what opportunities might be available for Eilis there. It becomes a given that she'll go, and she does, and she works at a women's department store.
The book is broken up into four parts. Part One depicts her life in Ireland and her voyage across the Atlantic. Part Two depicts her life in Brooklyn before meeting Tony. Part Three depicts her life in Brooklyn after meeting Tony. Part Four depicts her return visit to Ireland.
I will say that the depictions of Eilis's homesickness are the first really sad scenes in the book, with several more to come. One element left out of the movie was Eilis's three older brothers, who had moved to England, and Jack in particular, who is the closest to her in age, and visits with her in Liverpool before her ship leaves for New York. He tells her that homesickness is to be expected:
"He had said that he found being away hard at first, but he did not elaborate and she did not think of asking him what it really had been like. His manner was so mild and good-humored, just as her father's had been, that he would not in any case want to complain. She considered writing to him asking him if he too had felt like this, as though he had been shut away somewhere and was trapped in a place where there was nothing. It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do. But she knew that Jack was too far away to be able to help her." (73)
There is effusive praise, nearly six pages worth, of blurbs at the beginning of this paperback edition I read. Make no mistake that this is a very good book, but a couple of those blurbs got me thinking. One of them mentioned how there were no real antagonists in this novel, and to an extent I agree, though some of the other girls in the boarding house in Brooklyn are not necessarily helpful. I was surprised by a couple things in this novel--one of which I will put below the asterisks. The first is the depiction of Dolores, a girl who moves in after another girl exits, when Eilis is given the immensely better basement bedroom with a private entrance. Dolores is a cleaning lady, and she cleans the boarding house for reduced rent. She wants to go to the dances with the girls, but they are all mean to her, and so is Eilis. Or, while not exactly mean, she is certainly curt. She is not a perfect character. And this novel truly is more of a character study than a plot driven vehicle, except for Part Four.
So yes, I think if you saw the movie, you should check this out. I will definitely watch the movie again to compare it to the novel, though I'm not sure I'll review it.
I write separately to address the ending. The second thing that really surprised me was when she went back to Ireland and casually just sort of started making out with Jim Farrell at the dance after their day together with the Nancy and George. It seemed out of character. And then I was genuinely shocked when it was made pretty explicitly clear that she regretted what happened in Brooklyn, and she is only going back out of a sense of obligation, and is sort of disappointed. This is such a beautifully bittersweet thing to convey, and that is why I think the ending is the best part. Consider this separate part an anti-The Art of Fielding. The ending makes this book great, instead of the one thing that keeps it from being great:
"The idea that she would leave all of this--the rooms of the house once more familiar and warm and comforting--and go back to Brooklyn and not return for a long time again frightened her now. She knew as she sat on the edge of the bed and took her shoes off and then lay back with her arms behind her head that she had spent every day putting off all thought of her departure and what she would meet on her arrival.
Sometimes it came as a sharp reminder, but much of the time it did not come at all. She had to make an effort now to remember that she really was married to Tony, that she would face into the sweltering heat of Brooklyn and the daily boredom of the shop floor at Bartocci's and her room at Mrs, Kehoe's. She would face into a life that seemed now an ordeal, with strange people, strange accents, strange streets. She tried to think of Tony now as a loving and comforting presence, but she saw instead someone she was allied with whether she liked it or not, someone who was, she thought, unlikely to allow her to forget the nature of the alliance and his need for her to return." (241)
All I have to say is that this was not properly brought out in the film. Or maybe it was, but I didn't sense that Eilis wanted to stay. I mean, maybe a little bit, but I didn't get the sense of dread of returning. Saoirse Ronan deserved to be nominated for Best Actress, but she did not deserve to win if she meant to convey the sentiments expressed in the above passage. It felt like the film clipped out certain things, while still not being "Hollywood" about it.
I don't really know what else to say about this novel so...yeah. For some reason, it makes me incredibly nostalgic and sad, in a painful way. There are a lot of things going on in my life that make me identify with Eilis, even though I am not an Irish immigrant girl in the 1950's. I guess because I lived on Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights (where Eilis stays with Mrs. Kehoe) and because I was torn between a new life in Brooklyn or my "old life" in Chicago (still, no ocean separates the two, but I like being a 45 minute drive away from my parents) and because I've gotten involved in relationships of which my parents don't approve--though Eilis's mother beautifully handles her confession at the very end of the novel. That's another ridiculously sad part, where her mother can't even bring herself to say goodbye to her the morning of her departure. I guess there are just a lot of themes in this novel that touch me and make me feel uneasy about the choices I've made in my life and how I really feel like I'm finally "growing up" as I approach my mid-30's (I am still in my early thirties, comfortably, for 11 more months!). I tend to wonder if other people feel the same way.