Study Guide

Brooklyn: A Novel Family

By Colm Tóibín


As their mother's pension was small, they depended on Rose, who worked in the office of Davis's Mills; her wages paid for most of their needs. (1.86)

For all intents and purposes, Rose is the one keeping the Lacey family together. With her father dead, her brothers in England, and Eilis just a hair too young to get a good job, Rose has no choice but to bring home the bacon. Luckily, she does it the same way she does everything else—with panache.

She did not know if the other two also realized that this was the first time they had laughed at this table since Jack had followed the others to Birmingham. (1.121)

Wow—a happy little family these folks are not. Still, it's mostly due to circumstances: the family has endured quite a few hardships over recent years, including the death of its patriarch. Regardless, it's a testament to the strength of their familial bond that they manage to stick together through thick and thin.

"Oh, it'll kill me when she goes," her mother said. Her face wore a dark strained look that Eilis had not seen since the months after their father died. (1.218)

This is the first time that Eilis' mom admits that she'll be bummed out when Eilis leaves for America. While this seems like a pretty obvious kind of thing to us (BREAKING NEWS: mother loves daughter), you have to remember that Eilis' family doesn't talk about their feelings, like, ever. In that context, this is a pretty big deal.

She began to take note of all the details, thinking, for the first time in days, how she could include an account of them in a letter to her mother and Rose. (2.141)

At first, Eilis can only look at America through the eyes of her family. If she sees something cool, she doesn't think about how she feels about it—she thinks about how her mom and sister will feel about it when she describes it in her letters. This is just a small way for her to keep them close to her heart while being so far away.

As she realized that it could not be him, that she was dreaming, he took off his cap and she saw that the man did not look like her father at all. (2.220)

Here, Eilis has just mistaken an old Irishman at Father Flood's parish for her deceased father. This is an important moment, as it represents Eilis realizing how important it is to be a part of Brooklyn's Irish community—it connects her to her home and, most importantly, the traditions and memories of her family.

As he spoke, they all looked at him. Eilis noticed [...] that Frank was the most beautiful boy she had seen in her life. (3.544)

In our opinion, Eilis falls for Tony in large part due to her love for his family (especially Frank). While these cheery Italian-Americans are nothing like her serious-minded Irish kin, their warmth and openness make her feel right at home.

"It's Rose."
"What happened to her?"
"Your mother found her dead this morning." (3.691-693)

We'd say that this is Eilis' worst fear realized, but we doubt that she ever expected this to happen. Rose was always so youthful and energetic—and so personally inspiring to her little sis—that the thought of her death is too much to bear.

I know she'd love to see you, she keeps saying that is the only thing she is hoping for but we don't know what to say about it. (3.785)

Rose's death forces Eilis to reexamine her relationship to her family. By now, she has fully integrated herself into life in Brooklyn, but this heartbreaking event makes her remember her obligation to her loved ones back home in Ireland.

In the good cheer that followed the dessert she almost began to hope that he had told them that he and she were getting married. (3.940)

In other words, Eilis hopes that Tony's family is acting so happy because they know she's now a part of their family. This is a reminder that, although Eilis is returning to Ireland to help her family through hard times, she has already begun building a new one in Brooklyn.

Eilis [...] suddenly realized that she had seldom been alone with her before, she had always had Rose to stand between her and her mother. (4.15)

It's not exactly a perfect family reunion back in Ireland—although Eilis loves her mom, she finds herself at a greater distance from her than ever before. This makes her realize that her family is never going to be the same without Rose around, and that she owes it to Rose's memory to live life as fully as her big sis always did.