Brooklyn: The Book and the Movie


Occasionally someone leaves an interesting novel in my Little Free Library—and I snatch it up. This time it was Brooklyn, by the Irish writer Colm Toíbín, published in 2009. The timing was perfect because Toíbín just published a sequel to Brooklyn, which is now on my list to read.

Until now, I hadn’t had a chance to read Brooklyn, but back in 2015 I saw and greatly admired the movie based on the novel, starring Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in the lead roles of Eilis and Tony. I saw the film, so why read the book? Because that’s what I do. I love to discover how a story is treated in different formats.

Reading the novel was as engaging as seeing the movie, even though I know what happens. Brooklyn is a romantic drama, which is not my usual genre. But the novel and the film, which stays true to the book, is a quiet, steady, beautifully written tale of a young woman from a small town in Ireland who has no future there and is sponsored by a priest to go to America. She leaves her widowed mother and older sister to begin her new life. The time is the early 1950s, and postwar Irish immigration to the U.S. is booming.

The writing was so strong yet so subtle that I felt like I was accompanying Eilis on her nauseating journey by ship to New York, her awkwardness trying to find her comfort level in a rooming house with other young women, her dull job in a department store, her night classes in bookkeeping—and most of all, her devastating homesickness.

But then she meets Tony, a vibrant cheerful young Italian man, and soon she falls in love. She sees her future with Tony unfolding in America, but then her sister suddenly dies. Eilis returns to Ireland for a month to comfort her mother, who is now alone. But she’s one of those parents who manipulates her daughter through her grief, and Eilis meets a new man from her hometown, and now a future in Ireland seems a real possibility. She’s torn. Does she return to her life and the man she loves in Brooklyn, or does she stay in Ireland?

It’s a wrenching question, an excruciating dilemma. The entire novel (and movie) leads to this crisis moment—the biggest decision of Eilis’s life.

There’s nothing showy about the narrative, nothing original about the structure or the concept or the plot. Yet the story fascinates me. The drama isn’t in the action, but rather between the action—the biggest moments take place in the mind of Eilis. She’s in conflict with herself.

Most people say a novel is always better than the movie, and while that’s often the case, I believe you have the most affection for whatever format you first experience the story. So I recommend that you read the book and see the movie—in any order you choose. Or just pick one. It’s worth your time.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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