Study Guide

Brooklyn: A Novel

By Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn: A Novel Introduction

Before we begin, we just need to clear up some confusion—Brooklyn does not contain any of the following items:

  • Ironic hats
  • Wes Anderson-inspired tattoos
  • All-ukulele bands
  • Fixie bicycles
  • Vegan bakeries

In other words, the Brooklyn depicted in Brooklyn isn't much like the hipster-saturated landscape we know, and love, and pay too much rent to exist in today. And trust us on this one—that's a good thing.

Set in the 1950s, the novel follows Eilis Lacey, a sharp-witted Irish lass who gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move to Brooklyn, New York. As she pushes forward towards her dream of becoming an accountant (what a parent-approved dream, right?), Eilis begins her transformation from a small town Irish gal to a big city Brooklyn broad.

Naturally, things only get more complicated from here. There's the entrance of Tony Fiorello, Italian-American hunk extraordinaire and Eilis' first boyfriend. There's the condescending Mrs. Kehoe, who sometimes seems to love Eilis and sometimes seems to despise her. And then there's the whole Jim Farrell debacle… which you're just going to have to see for yourself. Although Eilis might not be fighting dragons or surviving on a Martian wasteland, her story gets pretty intense just the same.

Brooklyn is the sixth novel from Colm Tóibín, who's considered one of Ireland's foremost novelists in the twenty-first century. To be honest, the publication of Brooklyn only bolstered the dude's reputation, earning him the 2009 Costa Novel Award, as well as being long-listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Although Tóibín had been pretty notable before this novel, Brooklyn launched his reputation into the stratosphere, especially after the release of its lauded 2015 film adaptation.

So we're about to take a trip to Brooklyn, where the music is on vinyl, the skirts are flouncy, the ingredients are locally-sourced, and the "bathing costumes" are retro one-pieces. Huh. The more things change in Brooklyn, the more they stay the same.

What is Brooklyn: A Novel About and Why Should I Care?

If there's one thing that Eilis Lacey struggles with, it's the ability to stand up for herself.

And we're guessing that, if you have a pulse and lived through middle school, you've probably been through some similar experiences. Have you ever felt like your parents don't give you a say in your own life? Have you ever felt torn between romantic feelings towards two different people? Have you ever felt like your "friends" constantly gossip about you behind your back?

Eilis sure has. Instead of meeting these challenges with confidence, however, Eilis has a tendency to shy away from conflict, even when reality is smacking her straight in the face.

But here's the important part—Eilis changes. As she grows up, adapting to life in America and becoming a classy lady in her own right, Eilis eventually develops the confidence she needs to live her own life, to make her dreams come true, and to leave her mark on the world.

We all could use a bit of that attitude, to be honest. And if you want to get started, well, there's no better place to start than the pages of Brooklyn.

But don't worry—although this story is at its heart about coming into your own and overcoming that pesky thing called insecurity, reading this novel isn't like getting a pep talk from Mr. Rogers. There's death in Brooklyn. There's sex in Brooklyn. There's the thrill of drinking beer and eating hot dogs (no, not a euphemism) in Brooklyn. And there's also all the stuff that made the early 1950s so problematic: a whole bunch of racial tension and cultural codes that to us (and to Eilis) seem absurd.

But then again, Eilis would probably think life in modern-day Brooklyn was absurd too (artisanal what? a bacon-egg-and-cheese costs how much?)… although she'd be pretty psyched to see that some of her favorite 1950s fashions were back in style.

Brooklyn: A Novel Resources

Websites

Brooklyn Historical Society
Want to learn more about the best borough's illustrious history? Click the link and all of your wildest dreams will be answered.

Colm Tóibín's Homepage
This site is most definitely worth visiting, if only due to the dashing image of Tóibín that greets you upon arrival.

Movie or TV Productions

Brooklyn (2015)
Start stocking up boxes of tissues now because this movie is a tearjerker.

Brooklyn Trailer
Seriously, guys—the actress who plays Eilis seems like she's on the verge of tears throughout the entire trailer.

Articles and Interviews

Writing is a Battle with Laziness
This charming interview with Tóibín makes him seem like the kind of dude you could kick back and enjoy a pint of Guinness with.

Colm Tóibín on Brooklyn
This brief chat with Tóibín gets to the heart of many of Brooklyn's most fascinating themes.

Video

Colm Tóibín on how His Father's Death Shaped His Writing
Here, Tóibín gets personal and discusses how the loss of his father early in life shaped him as a writer and a person.

Colm Tóibín Reads from Brooklyn
Want to hear a passage from Brooklyn read by the man himself? Your wish is our command.

Audio

A London Cabbie's Summer Reading Picks
Here, London cab driver extraordinaire Will Grozier picks his favorite books to read during the summer, and Brooklyn makes an appearance.

Rethinking the American Saga
This fascinating piece from NPR argues that Eilis is a radical protagonist because she is decidedly ordinary.

Images

A 1950s Brooklyn Gang
These kids are some cool cats, though they don't seem like the type of folks that Eilis would call friends.

A Postcard from Enniscorthy
Check out this postcard featuring an image of Eilis' hometown of Enniscorthy, Ireland.