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Rethinking The American Saga In 'Brooklyn'

May 7, 2009 (Fresh Air)

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It's a quandary that even the best novelists have a hard time writing their way out of: How do you tell a story about a main character who's "ordinary" without making that character "extraordinary" simply because he or she is always in the novel's spotlight?

Think about it. If, as a reader, you stick with Ishmael or Mrs. Dalloway or Plain Jane Eyre long enough, you come to see them as uncommon in some way — maybe especially perceptive or plucky. But, in his latest novel, Brooklyn, Colm Toibin places his mundane heroine under some kind of magical force field that rebuffs all our desires to mistakenly "read more" into her.

The most remarkable thing about young Eilis Lacey is that she's nothing special; this novel, in contrast, really is something special, partly because humdrum heroines like Eilis are so scarce and certainly because of the period atmosphere and moral complexity of Eilis' story. Toibin — who's demonstrated in previous novels like The Master and Mothers and Sons that he can render just about any subject and mood — is beautifully restrained here, up until the ending, when he delivers a sucker punch worthy of his own "master," Henry James.

The (always-suspect) book jacket plot summary of Brooklyn declares that it's set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, "when one young woman crosses the ocean to make a new life for herself."

That last statement is wrong, wrong, wrong. Eilis doesn't "make a new life for herself"; she acquiesces to other people's plans. She drifts and, in doing so, she ultimately crashes and causes emotional wreckage.

Eilis and her older sister, Rose, live with their widowed mother in a small village in Ireland. Because the post-World War II Irish economy is so flat, the three brothers in the family have already immigrated to England. When Rose — a glamorous, go-getter, the obvious heroine of a more obvious novel — makes the acquaintance of a visiting priest named Father Flood, she persuades him to sponsor Eilis and find her a job in Brooklyn where his parish is located. Eilis passively goes along. Here's how Toibin deftly captures her neither-fish-nor-fowl feelings about the new life opening up before her:

Until now, Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done ... the same routines in the same streets ... Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared, and this, despite the fear it carried with it, gave her a feeling, ... she might experience in the days [,say,] before her wedding, ... days in which she herself was fizzy with excitement but careful not to think too precisely about what the next few weeks would be like in case she lost her nerve.

Still in a daze, Eilis finds herself in a third-class cabin on an ocean liner bound for New York; on her first night, she vomits up her dinner of peas and mutton all over that room and the hallway outside because more experienced passengers have already locked themselves into the common bathroom. Arriving in Brooklyn, Eilis is settled into a boarding house, night school classes in bookkeeping and a job as a salesclerk at a local department store — all thanks to Father Flood again. As he boasts to Eilis, "It's a funny place, Brooklyn ... As long as the guy in charge is not Norwegian ... then I can pull strings most places."

Eilis even meets a sweet young Italian-American plumber named Tony at a parish dance. Tony wants to marry Eilis and have kids. Eilis thinks she might love him. But, summoned back to Ireland because of a family tragedy, Eilis begins to feel Tony and her life in America fading, like a dream. Maybe she'll stay in Ireland. There's a nice guy there, too.

Twice throughout Brooklyn Toibin writes extended scenes in which Eilis is bobbing in the ocean — an emblematic image for a girl who allows herself to be pushed and pulled by the tides of happenstance and other people's decisions. Because he creates and sustains such an everyday character throughout this small gem of a novel, Toibin invites readers to rethink the familiar heroic version of the coming-to-America saga in which immigrants actively seize their own destinies along with large concepts like "freedom" and "possibility." Eilis' muted vacillation makes for a more profound story about ordinary limited options that also feels a lot closer to the emotional truth of the huddled masses.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Brooklyn
By Colm Toibin
Hardcover, 256 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $25

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