This novel takes place in Brooklyn. It's also called Brooklyn. What a crazy coinkydink.
But like most things in the magical world of Lit, this novel isn't just titled after its setting. Brooklyn means a variety of things for Eilis throughout her coming-of-age journey. At the beginning, it's a bizarre, foreign land. When she arrives, it's symbolic of everything that Ireland isn't, which makes her long for home. Eventually it becomes a second homeland… and then, when she returns to Ireland, she realizes that it has replaced her hometown as her real home.
Like other geographically-titled books (think Middlemarch, think Wuthering Heights) Brooklyn is about the ways that the culture of a specific location changes a life. For Eilis, she gets thrown headfirst into the melting pot… and realizes that it suits her just fine.
First, let's get caught up on the drama. Eilis, who married Tony before returning to Ireland and getting embroiled in an affair with Jim Farrell, who doesn't know that she's married. Jim asks her to get engaged and she considers staying, but is forced to return to BKLYN after Miss Kelly alludes to knowing about her Italian-American hubby.
In other words, it's a huge mess.
In fact, there's only one thing we know for certain: Eilis is returning to Brooklyn. We don't know if she's returning to her husband, as she told us earlier that "she was sure that she did not love Tony now" (4.226). We don't know if she's going to give things a shot with Jim, whom she promises to explain things to when she returns to Brooklyn. To be honest, however, Eilis might ditch both of these guys.
Despite her hand being forced, Eilis now realizes that the only place where she'll have the freedom to make choices is Brooklyn. She might not have all of the answers right now—she might even be fuzzy about the questions—but she knows she'll have to return to the big city to find them.
We can't think of any two more different settings than small town Ireland and big city Brooklyn. Given this, you can understand why Eilis is so affected by her travels between these drastically distinct locales.
Brooklyn is defined by its hustle-and-bustle. Although Eilis loves spending time on quiet, tree-lined residential blocks, our most enduring image of the neighborhood is the traffic on Fulton Street being so bad "that on the first morning she thought a fight had broken out" (2.20). Although Eilis is intimidated by these big city vibes at first, she eventually grows comfortable in the diverse, high energy world of BK.
Eilis' relationship with Mrs. Kehoe's boarding house is a bit more complicated. A small building filled with Irish girls and owned by an Irish landlord, this boardinghouse serves as a half-way point between Ireland and America, which has its benefits and its downsides. Regardless, Eilis finds herself most comfortable in her isolated basement room: she "loved putting her books at the table opposite the window when she came in at night and [...] spending an hour" quietly studying (3.156). Even when everything else is falling apart, this room is Eilis' sanctuary.
Despite this, we don't fully appreciate how much Brooklyn changes Eilis until she returns to Ireland. There, her big city ways contrast sharply with the small town vibe of her hometown, where everyone knows everyone and gossip is a way of life. Eilis' childhood friend Nancy can see these changes as soon as Eilis arrives, observing that "everything about [Eilis] is different, not for those who know [her], but for people in the town" (4.183).
The Lacey family home is even weirder. It's like a bizarre trip back in time for Eilis: her mom "had left everything [...] exactly as it was" in Rose's bedroom following her death, "including all of Rose's clothes in the wardrobe" (4.1). Likewise, Eilis' own room has been stripped of all her belongings and is instead just a guest bedroom now. This, as it happens, is an eye-opening experience for Eilis. Although she loves her homeland, she now knows that the only place where she belongs is the big city.
This one is a silky-smooth read, complete with an immensely readable style, grounded and relatable characters, and a straightforward approach to storytelling.
Although Eilis sees Rose's clothes as beautiful and glamorous at first, that vision changes greatly after Rose's death.
At first, Rose's clothes represent all the glitz and glamour that young Eilis associates with her big sister. Rose is one classy lady—she plays golf like a fiend, parties like a rock star, and breaks hearts like Taylor Swift—which naturally means that she also sports some top-notch duds. Before she moves to America, Eilis would give anything to have clothes as nice as Rose's.
That all changes after Rose's death. By this time, Eilis has been in the States for almost two years, which is an experience that changes her greatly. In more literal terms, however, it also means that she now has some amazing clothes—clothes even more amazing than those of her big sister. Still, Eilis' mom tries to make her to wear Rose's clothes, but Eilis refuses because it makes her feel like "Rose's ghost, being fed and spoken to in the same way at the same time by her mother" (4.102). In a way, it's almost like Mrs. Lacey is trying to transform Eilis into Rose.
But Eilis isn't down with that—she's worked really hard to get comfortable in her own skin and isn't going to let anyone take that away from her, even her mother.
In Brooklyn, letters don't just transmit words—they transmit memories.
After all, when Eilis receives a letter, very little focus is placed on its actual contents. Instead, Eilis is given the opportunity to think about the people she loves, like when she reads her brother's letter and "could hear Jack's voice in the words he wrote" and "feel him in the room with her" (3.787). In other words, Eilis is less interested in hearing about the day-to-day minutiae of her family's life than simply feeling their presence.
Of course, this little memory trip can be overwhelming at times, leading Eilis to avoid reading letters when she knows that the emotional punch will be too powerful. Ultimately, however, this just further emphasizes how much Eilis is affected by the letters she receives.
Eilis' decision to hold on to a photo of her and Jim Farrell shows that she accepts this brief, bizarre period in her life—for better or worse.
The photograph was taken during one of Eilis' beachside jaunts with Jim, and it depicts the couple acting very touch-feely with one another. Eilis doesn't quite know what to do with it when she starts packing up her bags (it's damning evidence of a clandestine relationship, after all), but she eventually decides to keep it, saying that "some time in the future [...] she would look at them and remember what would soon, she knew now, seem like a strange, hazy dream to her" (4.366)
This, of course, is compounded by the ambiguity of the ending, which leaves us questioning what will come next for Eilis' romantic life. By holding on to this photograph of her and Jim, Eilis is saying that her romance with him was real, whether or not she ends up with him, Tony, or some other hunky fellow we haven't even met yet.