Monday, October 25, 2010

Irish Girl meets Italian Boy...nothing ensues

Brooklyn: A Novel (McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2009) by Colm Tóibín, 267 pages

Oh Colm, you suck the fun out of everything... The accolades surrounding this book puzzle me exceedingly.

The plot elements had initially intrigued me: Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl, leaves home (the immigrant experience!) in the post WWII period and finds a brave new world in America (Brooklyn!). She meets Tony, a nice Italian boy (first love!) and makes trips to Manhattan (Manhattan! shopping!). She has a quasi-erotic experience with her work supervisor (sexual tension!). And Colm somehow manages to make it all so...boring.

Eilis is sponsored by a priest, Father Flood, visiting from Brooklyn, who quickly finds her both work and accommodations. She gets a job in a women's wear retail shop owned by an Italian family and lives in an all-female boarding house. Her housemates' worst anxieties are: Eilis' store permits black women to shop in it; Eilis is dating an Italian (and you know how they are) and, thirdly, they are sharing accommodations with, horror of horrors, a woman who makes her living cleaning houses.

The workplace is so dull that the most exciting thing that happens aside from the first black customers are the annual nylon sales which have Eilis' housemates in a tizzy. Oh yes, and Eilis is studying bookkeeping. Are you asleep yet?

Her experience with Tony is equally lackluster. he is devoted, attractive (but not spectacularly so), committed to work and family. Eilis' main concern is that she has trouble telling him that she loves him when he tells her.

The one point of potential drama mid way through the novel slips away with a whimper not a bang. Eilis' supervisor, Miss Fortini, under the guise for assisting Eilis in fitting her in a bathing suit, pretty much uses the exercise to feel her up. Not a murmur of protest nor curiosity nor excitement, and this plot point goes nowhere. What's the point of this episode: to demonstrate that there were repressed lesbians in Brooklyn in the 50s?

A sense of being underwhelmed passes over me. This was the same feeling I had when I read Tóibín's highly touted The Master (2004), a fictionalized interpretation of the life of Henry James and his repressed feelings about men and his homosexuality. Nothing much happened in that novel either.

Okay one major thing happens here: Eilis unexpectedly returns to Ireland in response to a crisis. I'd tell you the rest but you're probably reading this midday and it might have a soporific effect on you!

Come on Colm, for God's sake, get your Irish on...

1 comment:

Christine said...

Okay, I agree it wasn't scintillating, but I thought it was a nice little book. Like a kindhearted friend who tells the same story again and again -- you still meet for coffee...