All I need to be entertained are cats within ear-scratching distance and a good book . . .OK, maybe that's not ALL I need, but it's a good start.

I love to read. And I love to get recommendations for books to read.

I started Cats and a Book to share the books I read with others. Some I love, some I don't, but you may love the ones I don't, so you're welcome to post your own comments and suggestions.

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Happy reading!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

There's not a much more romantic notion than that of going away and starting anew elsewhere. Particularly appealing are stories of immigrants who voluntarily left their homelands to forge a new life, bringing little more than the belongings they carried. Colm Toibin's Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman who is swept away to New York City from Enniscorthy, Ireland. But her story diverges from the romantic almost at its outset. Rather than arriving with a sense of gritty determination or driven by a sense of desperation, there seems to be little that arouses Eilis's passion throughout the book. The reader gets the sense that life is happening to her, rather than her participating fully.

In Ireland, Eilis lived with her mother in a home beset with loss and grieving for her late father. Rose, Eilis' older sister, escapes by living a glamorous single life, and Eilis' brothers have left Enniscorthy to find work elsewhere. Rose enlists the help of a local priest to secure the necessary travel documents for Eilis to emigrate, arranges a place for Eilis to live and a job as a sales clerk when she arrives. Once in Brooklyn, Eilis enrolls in an accounting program and proves herself a capable saleswoman. Eilis shows only mild pleasure in her work success and her relationship with Tony, whom she meets at a church dance. He's nice. They don't argue. She just wishes he was two inches taller.

Eilis does return to Ireland for a visit, and assumes an almost ghostly version of her sister, taking actions that once again seem orchestrated by others rather than at her own hand. Eilis's pliancy makes it impossible to understand how she really feels about the direction of her life. In this passage on page 79, the author describes how Eilis dealt with her feelings of homesickness:

"No matter what she dreamed about, no matter how bad she felt, she had no choice, she knew, but to put it all swiftly out of her mind. She would have to get on with her work if it was during the day and go back to sleep if it was during the night. It would be like covering a table with a tablecloth or closing curtains on a window . . . "

There are moments when the reader might be tempted to shake Eilis to gain her attention, if nothing else but to ask her to think for herself. On the other hand, we may all have felt that at times, our motives and desires were the least effective determinants of our choices. Someone else or other circumstances were more impactful. With Eilis, one has the sense that her life's path has been the result of someone else's decisions.

There are times that Toibin's writing is so factual and bare-boned that it feels clunky, especially as he introduces characters early in the book. This isn't a pervasive problem, though, but one shouldn't expect flowery descriptions and prose either.

Brooklyn was published by Simon and Schuster in 2009. Toibin has written five novels, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize twice. More information about Toibin can be found on his website.

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