Well-behaved women rarely make history, as the saying goes. And Eilis Lacey is nothing if not well-behaved. But in his new novel, Brooklyn, acclaimed Irish author Colm Tóibín manages to pull off an almost impossible characterization: the heroine as doormat.
Eilis is almost a parody of 1950s femininity. She’s sweet; curvy; attractive but not alarmingly so; good at school but not ambitious; and above all, biddable. Throughout the novel, she does what she’s told.
Move to America? But I don’t want to leave ho – well, if you say so. Take a job in a department store? But I don’t really like.... OK. Go to night school? Yes, please. The cumulative effect is like Jim Carrey’s “Yes Man,” but without the high-concept, low-grade humor.
Fortunately for Eilis, the people ordering her around (a priest, her sister, her landlady, her boyfriend – even her bunkmate in steerage on the voyage over), usually have her best interests at least somewhat at heart. (If you prefer a heroine who’s not afraid to bash heads and take names, seriously, seek elsewhere.) Imagine Fanny Brice transported to Brooklyn.
When Father Flood stops by for tea one afternoon, Eilis, who’s trapped as a part-time cashier in service to a gleeful martinet of a grocer, is surprised to discover that the priest and her older sister, Rose, have planned an alternate future for her.
“Eilis felt like a child when the doctor would come to the house, her mother listening with cowed respect. It was Rose’s silence that was new to her; she looked at her now, wanting her sister to ask a question or make a comment, but Rose appeared to be in a sort of dream.... And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance. In the silence that had lingered, she realized, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America.”
Eilis dutifully packs and acts cheerful, refusing to allow herself to think about not wanting to go even when she’s in bed at night. Her brother, who’s already immigrated to England for work, remarks that “time and patience would bring a snail to America,” but the reluctant Eilis gets there a little faster. (Tóibín turns the rough crossing into an epic depiction of seasickness.)
In Brooklyn, Eilis finds herself selling hosiery at Bartocci’s department store, as arranged by Father Flood, and living in a boarding house with five other girls under the not-entirely-benign oversight of Mrs. Kehoe (living accommodations also provided by the Irish Catholic church). She doesn’t like her job or her roommates, but gradually, she begins to work through the homesickness and develop a level of comfort in her new life.
Night classes give her a sense of purpose, and something to look forward to (besides sleep). One night, an Italian plumber asks her to dance at a parish event, and Eilis, of course, says yes.
At first, she seems to be dating Tony because “no” is a foreign language to her, but his decency and steady love seem to be winning her over.
Then a family tragedy sends Eilis back to Ireland, and she has to choose in which country her future lies.
Eilis, with her sheeplike docility, would be easy to mock, but Tóibín absolutely refuses to condescend to her. It’s rather like “Mansfield Park,” where Jane Austen gently reproves readers for not appreciating Fanny enough. (Sorry, Jane. I’m still a “Pride and Prejudice” gal.) Instead, Tóibín carefully details Eilis’s life, first in Enniscorthy, then in Brooklyn, quietly commemorating the everyday by his close attention.
Those details are where “Brooklyn” shines. Tóibín can catalog the entire shopping list of what people would buy on Sundays after mass in Enniscorthy (and which items a devout Catholic would purchase on another day), as well as what brands of hose African-American women in Brooklyn wore in the 1950s.
There are, however, a couple of instances where Eilis’s naiveté just staggers – as when she pleads complete ignorance of the Holocaust from which her law professor has escaped.
“Was this during the war?” she keeps murmuring helplessly. (Yes, dear, it was during the war.) And readers who prefer a higher drama content will need to exercise a little of that snail-transporting patience, since “Brooklyn” is weighted toward its end.
Tóibín has been short-listed twice for the Booker Prize, most recently for “The Master,” which chronicles the last, poignant years of Henry James. He clearly didn’t waste his efforts channeling James: The ending of “Brooklyn” is a masterpiece of quiet reflection, bringing up deep emotions submerged under the placid exterior and giving the novel an ache that will linger for days.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.