Don’t let the title fool you – Toibin’s book is just as much about Ireland as it is about Brooklyn. Place looms large in the novel, set in the 1950s, about Eilis’s move from her small town of Enniscorthy in Ireland to Brooklyn.
With the help of Irish priest Father Flood, Eilis moves into a boarding house and starts work at a store, while starting night classes in accountancy. By capturing everyday life in Brooklyn and Enniscorthy, Toibin reveals the differences and similarities between the two places, from the personalities she encounters, to the dances she attends. However, despite Eilis’s initial homesickness, it is revealed that both places are not as different as they appeared. Eilis finds that families and communities can be just as warm, and occasionally suffocating, in both cities.
Toibin touches on some change that is occurring in the US at the time, including the introduction of goods for African American women in the store where Eilis works, and the expansion of Brooklyn to where Tony plans to build a home for himself and Eilis.
However, largely this book centres on Eilis’s coming of age, from a timid and obedient girl unable to gain proper employment in her home town to a glamorous and confident woman, and the catalysts for this change, including her new relationships with a boy she meets and one she has known for years. It is a progression that is hopeful, usually cautious, but occasionally reckless.
The chief question that lies beneath Eilis’s experience is where she will find her home, and a satisfying, if not without its compromises, answer becomes clear by the end of the novel.
This book is a gentle and enjoyable read – it didn’t make me cry or laugh, and I was largely unmoved by a tragedy within the story, but it certainly entertained me on the commute to work.