What a wonderfully tempting and engaging read this novel was. Colm Toibin’s style in this 2009 novel about a young Irish woman who is sent away from her family in Ireland to Brooklyn, is captivating and simple in a clean and beautiful way. Once introduced to the protagonist, Eilis, I was hooked.
Eilis is a hard working, determined, and motivated young woman. I found I could relate closely to her ambition and her drive to be successful in her business. Unable to obtain work in her native Ireland, she emigrates to New York to work in a department story while taking night classes in bookkeeping. Toibin describes her schedule: working six days a week, classes three days a week from the time she finishes work until late into the night, and homework and an attempt to maintain a social life in those few spare moments. One thing is for certain in this novel, this girl is buuuusy! This 1950s setting expects Eilis to be pleasant and cheerful 100% of the time at work, to follow the strict rule under the watchful eye of the strict landlady Mrs. Kehoe, and to purport herself as a proper, decent, well-mannered woman.
Eilis faces the struggle of being a world away from home for the first time, with the only means of contact being letters (certainly not something we’re used to in this day and age). What I find surprising is Eilis makes no close female companions in her time in America. She attends dances with the other women in the boarding house and she socializes with the women at work to some degree, but after two years on this new continent, she cannot claim to have the female companionship that she describes as having back in Ireland. Although she is dedicated and extremely hard working, I am skeptical to the fact that an endearing character such as Eilis remains without female friends throughout the 260-odd pages of this book.
My second criticism would be Eilis’ treatment of the man, Tony, whom she falls in love with and marries before returning to Ireland. In America, she questions her relations with this man, uncertain in her love for him. Understandably she is nervous and frightened, but she does not object to his sexual advances and his postulations of love though they often make her uncomfortable. Her courtship arises out of a need for companionship and a desire for love, but her marriage seems to be out of his fear of losing her and his insistence on them remaining together. Upon returning to Ireland, Eilis’ confusion is made apparent in her conduct with Jim, a young man from her childhood. Eilis’ affections are quickly turned to this new man as her husband remains in America. Her actions are quick and seem thoughtless and confused. She is a character who is obviously unsure in her decisions and is easily swayed by the persuasions of the men in her life. Again, this is where I find unlikeliness in her character. Hardly any time passes before her affections are transferred to another, but she seems to feel her emotions with such intensity with each man. In this, I find her somewhat insincere.
Finally, the book ends with Eilis’ abrupt return to America and the implication that news of her affair has spread throughout her small Irish town however the story doesn’t progress beyond the boat. I would have enjoyed reading about her return home to Tony and how she dealt with the knowledge of her affair abroad. This would have nicely rounded out the novel for me.
I did enjoy this novel immensely. I would read it again for sure.