No But I Saw the Book

Brooklyn a novel by Colm Toibin.  Scribner.  262 pp.  $15.00

Even I, a person who loves reading above all other pleasures, who believes the novel is the Great Bright Book of Life, was thinking I didn’t need to go back and read Brooklyn because I’d seen the movie.  I loved it, figured the book couldn’t add much to the story, even worried that the novel had a different ending (thought I’d read that somewhere.  More on that later).  But my reading friend Sally Sexton mentioned Brooklyn as a particular favorite, and I’d just finished and loved The Master.  So I thought I’d take a look.

I’m glad I did.  There are things movies do better, especially these days; they can have spectacular visual effects, and make battle scenes and other kinds of action incredibly vivid (sometimes too vivid.  Directors go over the top).  But for a quiet story about a young immigrant moving to this country, having her own fears and feelings about everything that happens, there’s nothing like a sensitive novelist to render that inner experience.  I don’t know how Colm Toibin knew so much about Brooklyn in the fifties, when the Dodgers were still there.  But his novel is utterly convincing.

And it comes at the right time, when the very word immigrant is fraught with all kinds of political implications, when we too easily ignore the fact that everyone in this country was an immigrant sometime.[1]  The story isn’t complicated.  Eilis Lacey lives in a small town in Ireland with her mother and sister.  Her brothers have all moved out and away.  Her sister is an all-star, working in an office and taking care of the family.  Eilis has that kind of talent, but there isn’t much opportunity in the small town where she lives.  She’s only been working one day a week, in retail.  So when the family hears of an opportunity in Brooklyn, a place where an Irish priest could look after her, and she could live in an Irish boarding house, it sounds good.  It will at least get her out of the small-town box she’s in.

We see her difficult passage, with an older woman who at first is cold but eventually a great help.  We see her arrive at her boarding house of all Irish women, and her employment as a clerk at a department store, where she has to look cheerful and pleasant at every moment.  Everyone she meets is a person of goodwill, though they have their own interests and are not giving out charity.  We see Eilis go through homesickness, and it really is an illness, not a passing mood.  All of these things are in the movie, but the novel captures her feelings more deeply.

Eilis is so ordinary a person, and the whole story has been told so many times, that you almost wonder: why bother?  But this is the classic immigrant experience; we see it more clearly because it isn’t sensational.  Her world opens up, and she eventually strikes up a romance with a traditional enemy for the Irish in a big city, a young Italian guy named Tony.  The final answer to all immigrant problems is sexual attraction, since opposites so often attract.  Tony’s family lives in a more difficult situation even than Eilis, a tiny apartment where the parents sleep in the kitchen, but they also have a lot of love and the great immigrant advantage: four young men with distinct talents and lots of ambition.

The book does not include my favorite line from the movie; when Tony’s little brother Frankie tells Eilis “We don’t like Irish people,” he follows that in the movie with “It’s a well-known fact.”  I loved that statement, about something that is anything but a fact.  In the book he says, “Mom, we don’t.  We’ve got to be clear about it.”  But Frankie is ultimately as lovable as all the other guys, and Eilis comes to love him as she does the whole family.  This portrayal of immigrant groups getting along despite a traditional antipathy is deeply moving.  It’s what I’ve always felt, and noticed, in New York.  There are so many groups that they have no choice but to get along.  That’s why it’s a great city.

Eventually Eilis has to return to Ireland for a family emergency, going back to that much smaller, but extremely familiar world that has so much pull for her.  She has promised herself to Tony, but meets an Irish man from a good family whom she would have considered a great catch in the old days, and he’s obviously in love with her.  Eilis, because she’s been taking business classes at night school, has become the same kind of all-star her sister had been, and is much sought after.  The urge to stay home is strong, at least equal to that of leaving.  We feel Eilis leaning both ways.

The movie doesn’t end differently from the book in that something different happens, but does have a different final scene.  I found that scene more satisfying than the one in the book, the kind of thing a movie can do better than a book—at least when the actors are good—showing someone’s face at a significant moment, when an expression says it all.  I recommend the book and movie equally, don’t think it matters which you take in first.  Neither does harm to the pleasures of the other.

[1] My old meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg, whose parents were immigrants from Russia, was quite obsessed with a statement by the own of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott, who complained the Asian students at colleges these days were taking the place of “our” kids.  What meaning could the word “our” possibly have in that context?