Monday, February 22, 2010

When Irish Eyes are Smiling....

Colm Toibin's Brooklyn was billed as one of the top novels of 2009. I had the book checked out forever but just never seemed to be in the mood for it. Finally, after worrying that the library police would come after me, I returned it unread and downloaded the audio instead. Now, what I'm wondering is, did he make a mistake in the title? This novel is really about Ireland and, to tell you the truth, that's usually a deal breaker for me. My Irish/English background has never seemed to fit comfortably. I've never yearned for a trip across the pond to connect with the old sod. Italy? Spain? Hot climates, hot foods. That's more my style.

Still, I wanted to understand what all the Toibin hoopla was about so I proceeded to read about the young Irish woman, Eilish Lacey, who was sent, through the intervention of a parish priest in Brooklyn (they're always behind the scenes, aren't they?) all alone across the sea to New York City. The reasoning for this huge undertaking was not really made clear at the beginning of the story. There's no family in New York and Eilish has never been one to put herself out particularly or show any great aptitude for experimentation and change. Her older sister, Rosemary, was the social butterfly who engineered Eilish's trip and her mother and brothers seemed to just go along.

Amazingly though, after a small bout of homesickness, Eilish throws herself into her work on the sales floor of a clothing store, goes to college in the evening to pursue a bookeeping degree, volunteers at Father Flood's parish hall dinners and dances and appears to be acclimating beautifully. It's not until Eilish meets Tony and begins a relationship with the handsome young Italian, putting herself at the mercy of gossiping biddies, that one wonders just where the author is going with this novel. Eilish is very inexperienced and Tony is very persistant, pushing for marriage and a family before she has an inkling of who she is herself.

I'm afraid that I just found this novel rather bland and truly, I love books about nothing, when the writing is exquisite and the characters are profoundly interesting (for example William Trevor's Love and Summer, which I'm just finishing up) but I just wasn't feeling it here. Toibin threw in some red herrings that would have added spice to the novel and made it more realistic but he didn't capitalize on them.
One such interesting aside was the response of the staff at Fortini's store when they were forced to wait on black women from the neighborhood who had never been allowed in before.
Another was the implication of a lesbian obsession with Eilish by her supervisor at Fortini's, a woman who took Eilish under her wing to help her buy a bathing suit for her weekend outings with Tony on Coney Island.

But the elephant in the middle of the room is Ireland itself and all it represents; the repressed lives of the small town denizens, the way Eilish's brother and mother try to guilt her into a return to the life they sent her  from, and the power of the priests to influence life altering decisions. It made me squeamish. Too close for comfort? Maybe. A book with untapped potential? Yes.

No comments: