Brooklyn Colm Toibin Essayscorer

Before we begin, we just need to clear up some confusion—Brooklyn does not contain any of the following items:

  • Ironic hats
  • Wes Anderson-inspired tattoos
  • All-ukulele bands
  • Fixie bicycles
  • Vegan bakeries

In other words, the Brooklyn depicted in Brooklyn isn't much like the hipster-saturated landscape we know, and love, and pay too much rent to exist in today. And trust us on this one—that's a good thing.

Set in the 1950s, the novel follows Eilis Lacey, a sharp-witted Irish lass who gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move to Brooklyn, New York. As she pushes forward towards her dream of becoming an accountant (what a parent-approved dream, right?), Eilis begins her transformation from a small town Irish gal to a big city Brooklyn broad.

Naturally, things only get more complicated from here. There's the entrance of Tony Fiorello, Italian-American hunk extraordinaire and Eilis' first boyfriend. There's the condescending Mrs. Kehoe, who sometimes seems to love Eilis and sometimes seems to despise her. And then there's the whole Jim Farrell debacle… which you're just going to have to see for yourself. Although Eilis might not be fighting dragons or surviving on a Martian wasteland, her story gets pretty intense just the same.

Brooklyn is the sixth novel from Colm Tóibín, who's considered one of Ireland's foremost novelists in the twenty-first century. To be honest, the publication of Brooklyn only bolstered the dude's reputation, earning him the 2009 Costa Novel Award, as well as being long-listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Although Tóibín had been pretty notable before this novel, Brooklyn launched his reputation into the stratosphere, especially after the release of its lauded 2015 film adaptation.

So we're about to take a trip to Brooklyn, where the music is on vinyl, the skirts are flouncy, the ingredients are locally-sourced, and the "bathing costumes" are retro one-pieces. Huh. The more things change in Brooklyn, the more they stay the same.

If there's one thing that Eilis Lacey struggles with, it's the ability to stand up for herself.

And we're guessing that, if you have a pulse and lived through middle school, you've probably been through some similar experiences. Have you ever felt like your parents don't give you a say in your own life? Have you ever felt torn between romantic feelings towards two different people? Have you ever felt like your "friends" constantly gossip about you behind your back?

Eilis sure has. Instead of meeting these challenges with confidence, however, Eilis has a tendency to shy away from conflict, even when reality is smacking her straight in the face.

But here's the important part—Eilis changes. As she grows up, adapting to life in America and becoming a classy lady in her own right, Eilis eventually develops the confidence she needs to live her own life, to make her dreams come true, and to leave her mark on the world.

We all could use a bit of that attitude, to be honest. And if you want to get started, well, there's no better place to start than the pages of Brooklyn.

But don't worry—although this story is at its heart about coming into your own and overcoming that pesky thing called insecurity, reading this novel isn't like getting a pep talk from Mr. Rogers. There's death in Brooklyn. There's sex in Brooklyn. There's the thrill of drinking beer and eating hot dogs (no, not a euphemism) in Brooklyn. And there's also all the stuff that made the early 1950s so problematic: a whole bunch of racial tension and cultural codes that to us (and to Eilis) seem absurd.

But then again, Eilis would probably think life in modern-day Brooklyn was absurd too (artisanal what? a bacon-egg-and-cheese costs how much?)… although she'd be pretty psyched to see that some of her favorite 1950s fashions were back in style.

“She was nobody here. 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 meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday. Nothing maybe except sleep, and she was not even certain she was looking forward to sleep. In any case, she could not sleep yet, since it was not yet nine o’clock. There was nothing she could do. It was as though she had been locked away.”
― Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn


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