Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: A Second Encounter

As one who is interested in the adaptation process, I’m always eager to find out how filmmakers choose movie materials.

I first read Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn a few years back when it was first published. I admit I found it uneventful and a bit bland at that time. On the shelf it went after my reading, and I didn’t bother to think too much about it.

Only in recent months when I knew about its upcoming movie adaptation that I was drawn back to it. My major quests this time: to give it another chance and to find out what in it that appeals to filmmakers.

Well, glad I reread it, for I’m actually giving myself a second chance. This time the ‘uneventful’ narratives become a quiet and gentle portrayal of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, a coming-of-age story told with nuance and grace.

I read it more carefully this time, noting in particular the subtexts and inferences. I paid attention not only to the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings from Tóibín’s direct statements, but his descriptions of their actions and find that he’s a master of subtleties.


Brooklyn is about migration, this time around, I can see how relevant and timely it is with our present global situation. From the small town of Enniscorthy, Wexford County, Ireland, Eilis sails across the Atlantic on her own to reach the shore of America just for a better future.

The initial foresight is however from her older sister Rose, the financial supporter and all round sustainer of both Eilis and their widowed mother. It is no wonder that Eilis feels it’s Rose that should be the one to go to America, Rose, the good golfer, glamorous, fashionable, capable and confident.

And Eilis? Here’s a little episode while still in Enniscorthy. She goes to a dance with her best friend Nancy and watches her being invited to the dance floor by a promising young man George. Sitting on the sideline Eilis watches her every move and then we read:

“Ellis looked away in case her watching made Nancy uncomfortable, and then looked at the ground, hoping that no one would ask her to dance. It would be easier now, she thought, if George asked Nancy for the next dance when this set was over and she could slip quietly home.”

When this set is over she isn’t given such a chance, for then George brings Nancy and Eilis over to the bar for a lemonade and we are introduced to his friend Jim Farrell, who “just nodded curtly but did not shake hands… his face emotionless.” Towards the end of the book we will see Jim Farrell appear again as some sort of a nemesis who poses a moral dilemma for Eilis.

Tóibín has given us an unlikely heroine in Eilis, a reluctant emigrant. Always the recipient of Rose’s support and encouragement, Eilis is in fact pushed out of her comfort zone by her well-meaning older sister. In her personal journey we see how Eilis grow and mature, and most importantly, with her good nature intact.

In Brooklyn, Father Flood helps her settle in Mrs. Kehoe’s rooming house and secures a job as a sales clerk at Bartocci’s department store. She gets a taste of rooming house politics, and at Bartocci’s, learn work ethics and the soft skills that are so essential to survive socially. And yet, she is plagued with homesickness as soon as she receives the first letters from home.

At the mid-point of the book, Eilis meets Tony, not Irish but from an Italian immigrant family. No matter, Tony’s authentic charm and devotion break down all cultural barriers and alleviates Eilis’s homesickness.

Tony is gentle with her, courteous and considerate. How do we know? As a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Tony never mentions baseball in front of Eilis. Instead, he listens attentively to her and having learned of her night class at Brooklyn College, waited for her after class just to walk her home.

Eilis discovers Tony’s love of baseball when he brings her home for dinner over conversations with her brothers at the dinner table. His family? That’s another charming story.

Just as she begins to settle in and fully enjoy her new life in Brooklyn, Eilis receives a tragic news that sends her back to Ireland for a short while. Now we are at the last part of the book with only fifty-one pages left. Here we have the major conflict of the novel, a moral dilemma that Eilis needs to resolve.

I much appreciate Tóibín’s storytelling. After presenting us in details a successful immigrant experience, a young woman becoming independent in a new land, finding herself, meeting a love interest, and even planning for a future with him, Tóibín drops a bombshell shattering all that has been built and invested. And all this while, he’s been so calm and quiet leading to it.

Further, Tóibín shows us how we can be a different person in different settings and environment. Once back in Ireland, the independent and confident Eilis is changed back to her old self. Under the roof of her mother, she is the dutiful and accommodating daughter once again, but this time, with the added burden of guilt.

Tóibín’s narratives are often quiet and mild, but his characterization is shrewd. We see the acerbic Mrs. Kelly who runs a tight ship in her grocery store where Eilis works on Sundays, and her American counterpart Mrs. Kehoe, Eilis’s landlady. Then there’s the curt Jim Farrell who doesn’t even cast Eilis a glance but earnestly woos her when she comes back after dipping in American waters; and finally there’s Eilis’s mother, subtly scheming and manipulative.

With the subject of migration, the ultimate quest is finding a home. As we read Eilis’s personal journey across the Atlantic from Ireland to America and back again, we see her tossed by the waves of loyalty and belonging. Like her first voyage over the turbulent sea, unsettling and gut retching, her return to Enniscorthy is an even more acute challenge. But at the end we see Eilis make her choice, and it is gratifying.

She is finally ashore.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Movie review of Brooklyn is here.


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

12 thoughts on “Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: A Second Encounter”

  1. I’m glad you posted this here – I was so surprised to find out that Brooklyn was to be given the film treatment. I enjoyed The Master and Nora Webster much more – the subject matter was more intense and therefore I felt Toibin’s subtle style became something much more powerful. But I can see now that Brooklyn would be more cinegenic. I’m sure I would get more out of it on a second read too (not that I ever have time for second reads.)


    1. Denise,

      After this second reading of Brooklyn I quickly moved to Nora Webster and found it a most gratifying read, best book I’ve come across for many years. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and read with eager anticipation. Who would have thought such a story on grief and the slow process of rebuilding a life after loss can be a page turner. If I’m a filmmaker, I’d snatch the film rights for that one too.

      As for The Master, after reading your review, I went out and bought a copy which is now on the top of my TBR pile.

      Back to Brooklyn, you must see the film. I won’t say more now as I’m preparing to write my review. No spoiler here. Will post soon.


  2. I went back and looked at all your posts on your trip. Your lobster photos made me very envious! I also liked all your great photos – beautiful cattle too. I enjoyed your tour of The Mount – what a lovely mansion. You did see some beautiful homes and scenery – the foliage must have been stunning. The book Brooklyn sounds very tempting to read – I like your review.


    1. VG,

      You’re always welcome at the pond here, and I appreciate your comments. Yes, that was a memorable road trip and glad you’d enjoyed reading the posts and photos. And the movie Brooklyn I think you’ll like too.


  3. Wow — High praise and good for you, returning to the source and giving it the second chance. I think I will add both this and Nora Webster to my (very tall) pile. What a thoughtful and well composed review. As you know, I’m eager to see the film. Now I’m eager to read the book, too.


    1. Jeanie,

      I love reading the literary source materials, most of the time if I’m aware of an upcoming adaptation, I’ll try to read the book first. But sometimes a good movie will send me to seek out the book, which I’d otherwise be unlikely to read. Examples are True Grit, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, When Did you Last See your Father, and yes, the TV mini series of Bleak House.


  4. I haven’t read this book yet but I have heard really good tings about it. I am glad the reread was so fruitful! Looking forward to hearing what you think about the movie.


  5. Much of my enjoyment and appreciation of this novel was due to the audio production… quiet, thoughtful, and very lovely. I listened shortly after it was released and am not really sure how I would have reacted to it in print. I’m on the library hold list for an ebook reread, but may just end up seeing the film first.


    1. JoAnn,

      I can fully appreciate an audiobook read slowly and quietly can bring out the essence of the book. And how does that transpose onto screen? Director John Crowley has his ways. Do watch for the film adaptation of this. I look forward to your ripples after you’ve seen it. 😉


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