Genre: Literary Fiction
Review in a word: Thoughtful
- How do you know which path to take?
Opening line: “Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work.”
A kind priest arranges for Eilis Lacey to work at a department store in Brooklyn. For a small-town Irish girl with few prospects, it’s an exciting opportunity. She crosses the Atlantic to start her new life, living in an Irish boarding house and attending night classes in bookkeeping. Eilis battles homesickness but embraces her current situation. Eventually she meets Tony, a blonde Italian who snuck into one of the Irish dances. They start dating, and their romance isn’t anything grand or passionate. It’s thorough and consistent. Tony is loyal and considerate. After several months of dating, they get engaged—it’s just the logical next step.
Eilis’s sister suddenly dies, and Eilis goes home to help her mother for a while. Before she leaves, Tony convinces her to just get married; otherwise, he’s worried she’ll never return to the U.S. And while Eilis is home in Ireland, she reunites with a boy she used to know.
This book wasn’t easy for me to get into. My expectations were colored by the trailer for the movie, which makes it seem like a love story. It’s not. This is the story of a woman growing into herself, deciding who she wants to be. In many coming-of-age stories, the protagonist seems to suddenly discover an inner strength or blossom into his/her “true” self. This book sends a very different message, and one that I think is much more realistic: Who you are is something you choose, with every decision you make.
At first I felt detached from the characters because of the third-person narrative; it took more mental work to empathize with and understand Eilis. But after a while I got used to Toibin’s writing style, and I really enjoyed it. I loved that the book didn’t offer a judgment on the decisions Eilis makes; readers are allowed to choose what they think without being biased by Eilis’s own internal monologue.
The decision Eilis ends up making isn’t an easy one, or even necessarily the right one for her. In Eilis’s case, she had two good choices. She could’ve been happy either way, and I think those are the hardest decisions to make.
What I’m Reading Next:
How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman