Reading Brooklyn Part One: “Time and patience would bring a snail to America”
She had already packed one case and hoped, as she went over its contents in her mind, that she would not have to open it again. It struck her on one of those nights, as she lay awake, that the next time she would open that suitcase it would be in a different room in a different country, and then the thought came unbidden into her mind that she would be happier if it were opened by another person who could keep the clothes and shoes and wear them every day. She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the clothes and shoes. The arrangements being made, all the bustle and talk, would be better if they were for someone else, she thought, someone like her, someone the same age and size, who maybe even looked the same as she did, as long as she, the person who was thinking now, could wake in this bed every morning and move as the day went on in these familiar streets and come home to the kitchen, to her mother and Rose.
I'm sorry to be obvious, but the most amazing thing to me is that a man wrote this about a young woman, had this kind of understanding about a young woman. Knew that feeling of being so small and wanting only to be smaller. It's got such a deeply internal, shy, tied to home, female understanding to it, but I know I'm being narrow here, because Eilis's brother Jack says essentially the same thing to her, says when he first got to Birmingham that he was "desperate to go home." That's a heavy thing to admit for a brother who won't even give you a hug before you sail away to America. And I know fear and loneliness are universal and not all women feel this way either, of course, but this was me on the way to Paris—desperate and small—this was me on the way to New York City, and Chicago, and college, and Girl Scout Camp, and even though Fran Lebowitz says—and sounds quite logical as she's saying it—that "a book is not supposed to be a mirror, it's supposed to be a door," can't it be a little of both? Sometimes? And a man saw all of that and wrote it down.
This is one of my nonlinear-thinking days, I guess. Also slightly sexist.
Then look at the holes in this family, all of these women left behind, a town full of missing men, that absence marks everything. Rose has one path because of that absence, and Eilis has no choice but to follow another, even Miss Kelly, they all just put their heads down and keep moving. Where are the choices, so many choices, even the choice to complain about your choices? There are no choices here, and you can see it in the writing, this quiet, resigned, dispassionate voice that all the while is driving somewhere, there's such inevitable forward motion in the construction of the sentences. You know? The last sentence in the paragraph above is 77 words long; it's a desperate sentence and in it she keeps looping back to define herself, to find herself, to plant herself somewhere solid and familiar and not let go, and the desperation builds as it goes, you can feel it in your chest—it's not in a hurry, that sentence, but it is going somewhere.
And poor Nancy Byrne, just beside herself trying to catch that George Sheridan at the Sunday dance! Christ, what a painful scene that was, waiting to get picked out of the lineup, waiting to be good enough, thinking "My life is at stake," because it is, in a way, and the whole time there's Jim Farrell standing nearby, giving Eilis the full-on Mr. Darcy. (I suspect we'll be seeing Jim Farrell again in the future, yes? I always ask myself these little questions when new characters appear—what is the purpose of this person in our story? Miss Kelly has served her purpose already—the path we absolutely do not want to follow—and so have Nancy Byrne and even George Sheridan, but I don't think we've seen Jim Farrell's purpose yet. But of course I am only guessing; it's just a little game, me trying to get one step ahead of Mr. Smartypants Man-Booker-Nominated Colm Tóibín. Of whom: j'adore.)
Anyway, books by men about women: I like that. I like it when a male author acknowledges that our lives—even those of us who live shy quiet internal little lives—are worth exploring from the inside out, with caution and curiosity and care.
And what did you think? Did you like it? Believe it? Believe the characters, believe the voices? Does it seem true? Did it occur to you as you were reading that it was written by a man? If so, did that color your involvement with the story? Color your response to the characters? Do you identify with Eilis? With Rose? Do you need to? Who—if anyone—gets your sympathy? Empathy? Are they the same thing? (I can never remember.) Does it remind you of any other books? Does Tóibín remind you of any other writers? Can you see Ernest Hemingway turning out a story like this, or Margaret Atwood? What about Anne Tyler? Philip Roth? What is Tóibín trying to do? What kind of story is he telling? Is this a chronicle or a fable? Does it matter? What does Eilis want? Do you think she'll get it? Do you want her to get it? Would you have gotten on that boat, or would you have sent Rose? (If I'd known about the vomit, I would have sent Rose.)
I'm just thinking out loud here, friends, and lifting a few questions from Susan Wise Bauer, who may or may not be full of shit. As always, feel free to discuss anything you like. I am at your mercy.