Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, and other NYC hist-fic

Colm Toibin's Brooklyn has a lot of features that indicated I would like it before I even started it—a) it's about Brooklyn and I live in Brooklyn, b) it's mid-century New York, which is a stylized period I love to read about, c) Colin said his mom liked it and we like the same sentimental things [specifically all Canadian Victorian L.M. Montgomery novels/movies/shows].

The briefest of brief summaries: Young Irish girl, Eilis, moves to Brooklyn to work in a store and attend business classes. Adjusts to new life. Meets new people. Has new experiences. Tragedy brings her back to Ireland where she questions which life is for her.

Brooklyn was pretty much as I expected. I loved experiencing this New York and Brooklyn through Eilis' eyes. I loved seeing how she adjusted to her new environment, how she interacted with new people, and how she remained a thoughtful and somewhat conflicted individual with a lot stewing below the surface. Towards the last section of the book, however, my esteem of Eilis started to wane, as she became indecisive and, I thought, immature in her thoughts and decisions. When she returned to Ireland, she seemed to lose a lot of the strength and individuality that made her such a strong character back in Brooklyn, and that annoyed me.

But, it is how it is —home is where you can return and avoid the responsibility, where you can be dependent again and stop the stress of working everything out yourself. That can be a great feeling [certainly a reason I love going back home to Nashville where my parents feed me and take care of me and I don't have to be an adult on my own for a few days!], but in Eilis' situation, it seemed to be more of a step back than a temporary situation.

I did enjoy this book a lot, but the historical aspect of it was my favorite part. New York City, as one would expect, has a very colorful immigrant history, and what's interesting about it now is that many neighborhoods are still completely reflective of their immigrant past. Greenpoint has a large Polish community; sections of the East Village, Ukranian; sections of Yonkers, Irish; and then the obvious Chinatown and Little Italy. At this moment in history, these cultural connections aren't really anything you think about walking from neighborhood to neighborhood. The cliche line about the city being a melting pot is cliche because it's true. And that's the biggest difference between now and the Brooklyn that Eilis lived in, when one was conscious of different cultures in the neighborhood, when these encounters were new and strange.

Some other good New York historical fiction I've read and would recommend:

  • Dreamland by Kevin Baker — turn of the century
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith— turn of the century
  • New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd — 1600s to present
  • Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart — WWII
  • Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard — mid-century
  • Lost Lustre by Josh Karlen — 1970s/80s
  • Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead — 1980s
  • The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe — mid-century (read these two in high school and don't remember much aside from liking them)
  • The Room-Mating Season by Rona Jaffe — mid-century

And if any of you are visiting NYC anytime soon, I highly recommend the Tenement Museum located in the Lower East Side. I visited for the first time this past Thanksgiving weekend, and it is excellent.


softdrink said...

I want to visit the Tenement Museum! It's on my must-see list for my next trip to New York.

Kenze Anne B said...

I picked this one up on vacation because the back sounded like a solid moderately redeeming beach read, and was rather disappointed.  I felt like the end entirely fell short, because I lost respect for Ellis.  She became slightly obnoxious, and though I suppose it might have been a realistic ending, it wasn't very satisfying or uplifting. However, I did thoroughly enjoy the historical aspects, especially the bits about the Dodgers...coming from a huge baseball fan.