Book Club: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Henpicked’s book of the month for March 2017…

Brooklyn book by Colm Toibin against a backdrop of old photos of Brooklyn Well enjoyed A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, and we’d recommend the book. Please check out the reviews.

A huge thank you to our book champions and to the Henpicked community for their comments and reviews. If you have any further thoughts please drop them into Disqus at the bottom of the article.

We’re really excited to announce that Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín is our book of the month for March, another author recommended by one of our Henpicked Book Club regulars and it’s highly rated:

‘Magnificent’ Sunday Telegraph

‘Novel of the year’ Sunday Times

‘Unforgettable’ Spectator

We’re looking for 10 book champions so if you would like to volunteer, please let us know. We give each of our champions a FREE copy of the book of the month in return for hearing what they think of it.

Just like last month, we’ll let our book club subscribers have some key points about the book to think about throughout the month and in the meantime, please do get reading!

Feel free to jump into the discussion about the book at any time during the month using Disqus which is ready and waiting for you and shows up at the bottom of this page – it’s free to sign up and once you are logged in, you can comment on any of the articles on the Henpicked website.

Other book suggestions

Please let us know if you have any recommendations!

We welcome you all and remember there is no right or wrong with reading – everyone’s opinion counts.

Happy reading!!

Henpicked

About Henpicked

From the Henpicked team!

  • Tracy Wood

    This is a nice book but in many ways nothing happens, nothing out of the ordinary that is. Although the novel jumps from one time frame to another and back again you are seeing everything as it happens so personally I didn’t find it confusing especially as the main characters interacted differently in each period.
    I felt that each generation was weaker than the previous one, maybe due to circumstance as the family business was set up by the patriarch of the family, his son, Red, worked for him and then his son became the third generation to join in the same way. Each son had less to achieve to get to their presupposed place in the family. With this and the house itself it was as if familiarity was breeding contempt. The job was a given and the house was, to all but its creator, just a house and eventually it wasn’t even a concern.
    As a multi-generational family they worked, although none of them stood out for me, there was the troubled child, the reliable one, the newly disenchanted one, stereotypical in many ways but they gelled, they came across as a family where some revelled in their ordinariness whilst others wished they had a deeper, more complicated past.
    One thing that did annoy me was Nora using ‘Mother Whitshank’ and ‘Father Whitshank’; if my daughter in law did that I may have to leave home! It was stated that it was a new thing she began when moving into the house but we never discovered why.
    I would recommend this book but only if you want a friendly novel where nothing very much happens quite often.

  • Generosity

    Thanks so much: A Spool of Blue Thread is a quietly unassuming novel but it gets to the heart of everything in America -I did American Studies years ago and really think that you could spend a lifetime studying America but would never really understand it or the people until you realise that it is a country built by people who felt they were the elect but it was based and premised on slavery…so we’re inextricably linked to whatever happens over there..and the psychopathic way Junior is as a young man is paradoxically the pioneering sprit that builds the home (and causes the problems of all the future generations…)

  • Paula Sharratt

    My mum and her family came from Dublin in the fifties and I’ve had an amazing time reading and researching Ireland and the Irish diaspora and how it makes you see things as both insider and outsider. I’m really looking forward to Brooklyn!

  • Paula Sharratt

    This is great!

    • Deborah

      I’m with you Paula, this is such a great story, such courage and imagine there were a lot of young women in her position!

    • Nicola Doughty

      I’m loving it too! I have to be honest, it’s not the type of book that I’d normally pick up but I was totally hooked by the end of part one that I am now racing through it!

      • Paula Sharratt

        Excellent: I bet you race through it too: dying to hear what you think!

      • Deborah

        Brilliant!

  • Paula Sharratt

    I finished this last night and loved the characterisation and plotting, the way history and economics sweep up Eilis and drop her in New York…it was almost as if she was back in Dublin…the layers of culture between the Irish and the Italians and the opening up of Bartoccis to black women is a story in itself. It was a great romance with the idea of romance: Tony and his film star lookalike bothers but also the difficulty Eilis had of staying with Tony’s family for regular meals for fear of losing something of herself…. It’s all about displacement, displaced people and the thousands of miles between families at the table, in the immigrant job, in the community they find themselves in and how absurdly knowledge and information become distorted and misused and too powerful: remember in the final section Mrs Kelly’s long pointed nose and finger at what Eilis was up to and how she knew the Kehoe….shocking that the whole orbit of the story is pitched through the idle speculation of these key community people who trade and save and profit from the situation in much the same way that people profited from the second world war and what the Nazis were doing. There’s an interplay between the destiny that this offers Eilis and who she really is (for much of the novel she’s just not sure of anything), where through her own efforts she’s recommended to the Kelly…then through her sister’s achievements and her reputation she’s recommended to Father Flood to be ‘exported’ because there just don’t seem to be jobs…when she comes back though after Rose dies and is offered a job although she’d previously been rejected by Rose’s company….because she’s now a ‘catch’ …and her relationship with her mum. I have difficulty with Colm Toibin’s view of women..he does get into the fabric of life and does write women well (Nora Webster is a beautifully drawn novel) but in a way he does women a disservice by rewriting the same stories again and again without finding anything new they are vessels to be moved around by others (including novelists…)

    • Despite my good intentions I haven’t started this yet but I’m impressed by your review Paula!

    • Nicola Doughty

      Great review Paula! And you’re so right about the whole section about New York and the layers of culture being a story in itself.

      • Paula Sharratt

        You too Nicola: I like the way you pick up on the how of story writing making the journeys of immigrants easier to understand and read: it is done gently but the wrench of always leaving of feeling that they have to keep moving is fierce and cruel?

  • Nicola Doughty

    Simply loved this book! I have to admit I found the book a bit slow moving to start with but once I’d reached the end of part one, I was desperate to see how Eilis would fare on her journey from Ireland to America. Would this quiet, gentle and naive character come into her own, find her feet and get what she wanted out of life once she crossed the pond to Brooklyn?
    While Eilis remained the central character, her story throughout was very much shaped by the characters around her and every decision was made for her – or guided by a sense of duty. Her sister orchestrated her emigration to America, her priest fought her battles and she even married by default.
    Life in Brooklyn was colourful and the characters around her interesting. So when a family death meant she had to return home to Ireland, we began to see a slightly braver version of Eilis. And when she faced her final dilemma as to whether to return to Brooklyn the whole will-she-won’t-she question kept us guessing right through to the last couple of pages.
    When I reached those final pages, it was sad to leave her at this point in her journey. I needed to hear the next chapter and what happened next and needed to know if she’d made the right move. This sweet and quiet story is one that I’ll read and read again.

  • Ann Hughes

    I have just finished reading Brooklyn, and I must say there has been times when I wanted to give Eilis a good shake, and tell her to make some decisions for herself, she was so naive she just let life happen to her and just went along with whatever other people wanted, without considering her opinion, from the shop keeper Mrs Kelly, deciding she was to work in the shop, her sister Rose sending her to America and l am sure she would of married Jim Farrell to please her mother if Mrs Kelly hadn’t stepped in. Eilis seemed to have forgotten she was married to Tony. I would of loved to have heard more about the embarkation from the ship after such a bad journey and the first impressions of America, also the underlying racism was skirted over, but overall an enjoyable read.

    • Paula Sharratt

      Do you think she fancied Jim?

      • Ann Hughes

        No, Paula I think she preferred Tony, with his friendly personality and his courteous way of looking after her.

        • Paula Sharratt

          Ha ha! I think she had a thing for him

    • Tracey Madeley

      My biggest problem was her relationship with Tony & Jim. I too felt like giving her a shake and saying make up your mind. I could not understand why she would want to entertain Jim when she was already married. My first thought was, this is unrealistic and then I thought, if everyone stayed with the person they were married to there would be no divorce.
      I think Paula is right in the sense that Ellis appears to be a pawn controlled by other people. It would have been nice to see what her life was like after she went back to America, but to a certain extent the ending continues the mystery.

  • Vicki Bramble

    I’m loving this book. I’m only about a third of the way through, but I am savouring every word. Many years ago I went to boarding school & the description of Eilis’ homesickness made me cry & whisked me back to 1983 – I felt exactly the same. Beautiful writing. I’m looking forward to the rest of the story (& only then will I watch the film!)

  • Vicki Bramble

    I’m loving this book. I’m only about a third of the way through, but I am savouring every word. Many years ago I went to boarding school & the description of Eilis’ homesickness made me cry & whisked me back to 1983 – I felt exactly the same. Beautiful writing. I’m looking forward to the rest of the story (& only then will I watch the film!)

  • Sally buckby

    Hi my sincere apologies for only just starting this book today, been a very hectic crazy month with lots of birthdays, and occasions, but a raring to go now! Read first couple of chapters and so far enjoying it, can’t wait to see how the characters develop, and how she adapts to life in america!

    • Me too, Sally! Got a bit of catching up to do ..

  • sally hughes

    I am also slow at starting this but whizzing through now! I wondered if anyone else has seen the film before reading the book? Did this affect your decision to read the book or your expectation of the book? I have seen the film and wasn’t a huge fan. The book is constantly surprising me with its understated depth of perception.

    • Nicola Doughty

      I hadn’t seen the film but had seen a few disappointing clips and so my expectations of the book were fairly low. Like you, I was a bit slow to pick it up but, you’re right, the book is certainly perceptive and definitely gets the reader thinking about the characters.

    • How did you get on in the end, Sally? Look forward to seeing your book champion review!

      • Sally buckby

        Hiya Jane, I’m afraid I have only got half way through book so far, had to go into hospital last week, so thought while I’m recovering I’d have loads of time to read! Unfortunately I developed a nasty infection which has made me quite poorly, so havent felt like doing anything just sleeping feel as though ive wasted a week of my life! Im so sorry I would never have become champion ifor this month if I’d had any idea what was ahead! I will endeavour to finish the book over the next week or so as hopefully start to pick up! Once again my sincere apologies. Regards sallyx

        • Oh, Sally, that sounds horrible for you. You shouldn’t be feeling bad about not reading the book then – I don’t have any excuse for still not having finished except I haven’t enjoyed it very much so far and that seems contrary to everyone else … I am frustrated with Eilis and don’t really care very much what’s happening to her, is the problem for me! Hope you’re feeling better soon and maybe the suspensful (is that a word?) April book will grip us both 🙂

          • Sally buckby

            Thank you so much Jane, I know what you mean, I was finding it a bit if a chore too, thought I was the only one, her character I don’t find at all interesting,normally if I find character fascinating ii can keep going no matter what, have just downloaded April’s book, so hopefully in the next day or two I can start on that? Every day gets a teeny but betterx

  • Paula Sharratt

    The books about Ireland make me think about the exhibition I’ve been to at Nottingham Contemporary- it’s called The Place is Here about the black British experience of moving here, establishing themselves and producing art. Very brilliant and interesting because, as Brooklyn shows people are never where they think they are. I love the way Brooklyn catches this: dreams and thinking and living and working. I think we’re living in a time where we’re thinking about this.

  • Vicki Bramble

    I loved the story and the beautiful writing. I agree that Eilis seemed to go along with other people’s choices for her, but I suppose the world was very different then. I found the ending disappointing, it sort of just stopped & I am desperate to know how Eilis is getting on & whether the choice that she was brave enough to take worked out for her. I would recommend the novel & have already passed it on to my Mum!

  • Paula Sharratt

    It does make you think across the generations, a bit like A Spool of Blue Thread, you feel that you need to make the effort to try to understand why there are so many difficulties between generations and where they come from. Everyone thinks that they’re normal (he he) It’s really hard to see things from the other person’s perspective…across the pond looking at America, Americans and immigrants is a fine way to understand ourselves. Also it makes me think about what America is. What is America now that we have the Trump or doesn’t it matter?

  • Marion

    I absolutely loved this book. I loved its gentle voice and its sheer story telling. I particularly liked the search for self and belonging, For the consideration of who we are and to what extent our surroundings govern our responses. The dilemma of who to love and how to untangle our messy lives was fascinating. The knowledge that nothing you can do will make it right, that we hurt people almost unwittingly and that the hurt can’t be stopped was so painful. The way that we were invited into Ellis’ life was astonishing and that the dilemmas of the era still exist today (the ever present problem of ‘what shall we do with mother’ still pervades) was almost depressing.

    The description of the homesickness was heart wrenching and the landlady’s personality was so well portrayed. The small strokes that built up the picture were masterpieces in themselves. I loved the dilemma of the larger room – she too naïve to realise but too canny to fully accept. I was sad to finish it and sad to think that the last 50 years haven’t really changed women’s lives.

    • Paula Sharratt

      Yes; I think the saving grace for all of us against total despair is the hidden humour in that it has been written by a man. He doesn’t get everything right: his women are puppets (starry little Pinnochios but really I was aware of the theatricality of everything. It’s not a problem, he was solving a problem with the story but I think there can be a whole range of stories that need to be written and read about this time to get the real sense of what it felt like to be alive then as a man or a woman…or just as a person.

      A very sensitive and phenonmenal story teller but as a man, working within class and gender of those times I think Colm Toibim shows how he is a great logician of a story teller: his rational eye follows the sweep of all the ingredients he puts in. I think this means that he writes culture as well as people so well and culture saves them all really because there’s a lot unsaid, unwritten that is about the great things people do without realising.

      I think is that there are many female Colm Toibims who haven’t let their stories have the light of day and we need them like we need food and water (and great moisturiser).

      • Tracey Madeley

        Do you think Eilis is portrayed as a puppet on purpose? Culturally women in the 50’s were wives & mothers, they gave up their jobs when men came home from the war. Eilis lets life happen to her rather than taking ownership and control. Is Toibim saying she has the ability and if she took more control things would have ben different. Is this a lesson for future generations?

        • Paula Sharratt

          It’s a difficult one! He’s doing both through showing culture: Irish and American Irish and the wider opportunities that are both exploitative and liberating I think. It’s a great point you make I think he’s troubled by the sense of duty and obligation of all of these women of every generation he writes but I also think he’s in awe of them and would like to be admitted into their secret world more!

    • Deborah

      Absolutely agree with you Marion. I loved it too. And now the film! x

  • Awarby

    A fabulous read full of in depth detail, drawing the reader into Elias journey from Ireland to America and back again. Having recently cruised from Southampton to New York, I particularly enjoyed the detail contained within the account of the crossing.
    The description of her work in the department store was fascinating and her work on Christmas Day with the homeless made you feel you were there. All the characters were well drawn and on the whole were likeable. Her slow burning romance with Tony was a joy to follow.
    Her mother, although kind and well meaning was not my favourite character and seemed somewhat cold and aloof.
    I was anxious at the end hoping that she would make the right decision. I think that she did.

  • Kay Garrett

    What a frustrating book! It took me a while to get going, as the lack of chapters made it seem a bit interminable. But when I got into it I started to really enjoy it – in spite of itself almost. There weren’t any really endearing characters in it, the lack of first names made it hard to differentiate them – Mrs Kehoe, Miss Macadam, Miss Kelly, Eilis’ mother (she is only ever referred to as this). I couldn’t figure out why Eilis seemed to inspire great passion in men and plaudits from her work superiors as nothing she said or did implied much in the way of personality. A lot of the time ‘she didn’t know what to say so she said nothing’. I thought it touched well on the racism and xenophobia of the time, with Tony and his brothers all changing their Italian names, and the ‘coloured’ women finally being allowed into the store. Personally I didn’t mind the ending – it was more of a slice of life than a beginning middle end kind of book. I didn’t feel either Tony or Jim were particularly great loves of hers, so I hadn’t really invested in hoping for one or the other. But in spite of my misgivings, I thought it was beautifully written and I can’t stop thinking about it, which is the sign of a very talented author.

    • Well I’m inclined to agree with most of what you said Kay. I finally struggled to the end this morning, and to be honest if it wasn’t a book club choice I probably wouldn’t have finished it! I think I would disagree about the writing – the book remains invisible to me, lacking in rich description that could give a sense of colour (yes it’s a blue dress with flowers on but somehow there is no life in it). .I would be interested to see the film because I can imagine that with careful editing of the story it would make a reasonable film.

  • sally hughes

    Such a slim book, but it has taken me into April to finish it! It is quite a slow read and, although a pleasurable one, is not the kind of book that you cannot put down. Before reading the book I had already seen the film and was interested in seeing if there was more to the story and there definitely was. What you get in the book is the painstaking detail for example in describing the complicated shop systems both in Ireland in America and shared bathrooms on the boat. You get the careful evocation of family relationships, for example Eilis’ day out with her brother when she wants to hug him and the machinations of Rose and her Mother to ensure that Eilis has a future. Seasickness and homesickness are powerfully and intuitively conveyed and the journey to America stands out. As a depiction of a particular era, and as an evocation of the experience of someone starting a new life in a foreign land, the novel works extremely well. However, as others have commented, I am not sure how much we feel drawn to the characters, except perhaps to Rose, who shines out of the pages, carefully and subtly, but poignantly drawn.