This simple little novel, frankly, left me cold. A slow pace, pedestrian language and dialogue, an uninspired plot and a “surprise” ending which goes nowhere, left me rather stunned that this book was twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman in the post-war years who lives with her country mom and smart ambitious older sister Rose. Three brothers have left home to work in Dublin. Dad died years earlier. As little to no work is available for Eilis in the small town in which they live, her sister arranges to send Eilis to America under the protection of an Irish priest whose parish is based in Brooklyn. Eilis is set up in a proper Irish boarding house with a collection of unsympathetic female characters, and with a boring job on the shop floor of a busy department store under the eagle eye of a Ms. Fortini. Eilis studies bookkeeping at night to better herself, goes to parish dances on Saturday night, writes letters about the minutia of her daily life to mom and sister Rose, and goes on dates with a young and attentive Italian plumber intent on marriage.
Eilis’ life plods along in predictable increments, and we are swept along—NOT!—in Eilis’ dilemma over how far to encourage Tony’s amorous adventures, how much to tell her mother and sister, and so forth. There are brief moments of interest rather gratuitously and almost irrelevantly inserted into the story, as when people react predictably to “colored people” coming into the store, and when Ms. Fortini casts a lascivious eye on Eilis’s swimsuit-clad figure. Instead of real plot development, the book is filled with pregnant pauses, cold glances, quiet nods, and enigmatic smiles, but nothing that could exactly be called action. It is only when Eilis receives notice from the priest that her sister Rose died in her sleep from a heart ailment she had kept secret from everyone, that some conflict in this otherwise boring tale emerges. Should Eilis move back home to live with her mother, what about her job prospects, her life with Tony, etc., etc.?
Somehow, I just didn’t care by that point what she did or didn’t do. She is such a wimp, passively swept along by the ebbs and flows of ordinary daily life that I found Eilis almost unlikeable. This book reminded me of nothing so much as an EKG report, all tiny rises and falls and one spike that betokens something interesting happening, and then back to the tiny rises and falls. The End.