Book Review: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

My interest in the novel Brooklyn stems from seeing the movie a few years ago and considering it one of the best films of the year. I decided to re-watch the movie recently and I came up with the idea that this time I would read the book first.

Even before I settled into the novel, it came to me that in some ways the story was similar to The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. Both books deal with the immigration experience. In The Namesake, Bengalis from Calcutta immigrate to New England, where they must learn to adapt to a vastly different lifestyle. Eventually they assimilate into American culture and raise a family there. In Brooklyn, a young Irish woman immigrates to the United States, where she initially has a difficult time so far from home. Eventually, though, she gets used to American ways, and when she meets a kind Italian man their relationship helps her adapt to her new country. In both books the call of the homeland waxes and wanes but it ultimately has a strong pull on the minds and hearts of the immigrants.

There is one other similarity between these two books: in my opinion, the movie versions transcend the book versions of the stories. Don’t get me wrong: I think that Lahiri is an amazing writer. When I discovered her collection Interpreter of Maladies, I was totally blown away. However, The Namesake was her first novel, and I felt that it meandered a bit. It is understandable that it is not quite as tight as her stories. As for Brooklyn, it is a good novel; it held my interest from start to finish. It is told in spare, matter of fact prose, though, and lacks some of the emotional impact of the film. (I may have a few more words to say about this when I watch the film in a few days.) In the film, Saoirse Ronan is so emotionally charged in the lead that I could not help but picture her in the role as I read the book. Additionally, the film contains a final scene that is missing from the book, and that final scene adds great power to the ending.

Still, as I said, Brooklyn is a fine, well-written novel, and the calm, plain cadence of the language disconcerts readers and slips them subtly into the story. Some writers display ostentatious verbiage so that the words and turns of phrase used to describe things become more important than the characters and the plot. Toibin allows what happens to predominate, and the story is compelling enough to carry readers along without all the other extraneous trappings. It takes place in the 1950s, when Brooklyn was a vastly different place than it is now, when it was full of immigrants from various nations seeking a foothold in post-World War II America. The novel works well as history, character study, and romance, and I recommend it as a thoughtful, heart-tugging blend of all these genres.

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After re-watching the movie, I will reaffirm that the film transcends the book, and the added ending is one of my favorite cinematic experiences.

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