Tanner sips books; I inhale them. While Tanner pauses to re-read beautiful sentences multiple times, I rush happily along past those sentences, trying to fall more deeply and more viscerally into the story. For that reason, every time I open one of my favorite books—the ones I’ve read at least fifteen or twenty times—it’s as if I’m returning to two different worlds: the familiar, unchanging world of the book’s story, on the one hand and, on the other, to the person I was when I first, or most memorably, read the book. When I think about these stories (which, it occurs to me, have become part of me), I struggle to separate the book from what it meant to me when I first read it.
In the summer before my senior year of college, I was at a loss. I had no set career plans, no one graduate school most appealed to me, and I had no idea which country I was going to live in after graduation. I had left the States to spend my second semester of junior year studying abroad in Edinburgh; and I’d unwillingly returned, attached to a Scottish boy still studying in Edinburgh. By day, I was an intern at a Johns Hopkins International Affairs think tank. By night, I haunted the Georgetown Barnes and Nobles, switching back and forth between LSAT and GRE studying.
To add some enjoyment to my summer, I decided that if I diligently studied all week and during the day on weekends, I could read good books on weekend evenings. Newsweek (remember when that was still a magazine?) or Time or some other periodical had published a list of the books most meaningful and most reflective of the happenings of 2009. I decided I’d try (and ultimately fail) to read them all. I read Lolita, Mark Twain, Notes from Underground, Christopher Hitchens (much to my chagrin), A Good Man is Hard to Find, a lovely little book by the Jesuit Priest James Martin, and Judy Blume. And then I read Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín.
Since that summer, I’ve read Brooklyn at least once, if not twice, every year. Tanner, who just read it for the first time, will tell you it’s a beautifully sad, evocative book, giving voice to the longing and despair that accompanies belonging to, and in, multiple worlds. I’ll tell you it’s a book about a girl choosing between two different worlds who, far more accurately than I ever could, described exactly how I felt that summer. I’ll tell you that I sat in the test prep section of the Barnes & Nobles—surrounded by mounds of SAT, AP, GRE, MCAT, and LSAT books—with my back up against an uncomfortable wooden bookcase, devouring Brooklyn on one warm Saturday night. As Tóibín main character, Eilis, wandered through her small hometown of Enniscorthy, Ireland, I accompanied her, all the while thinking back to the small Scottish towns I’d visited the previous spring. And after Eilis moved to Brooklyn and established herself there, walking confidently to work and class, deftly handling customers, her landlady, and her fellow boarders, I thought about how I was now living and working in DC, a long ago dream finally come true. Just as much as Eilis could see herself in both Brooklyn and Ireland, I saw myself in Eilis.
By all accounts, Eilis is dispassionate, analytical, and accommodating. She arrives in Brooklyn, not because of her long, deep-seeded desire to immigrate to America, but because her mother and sister “encouraged” her to try it out, and she never thought to say no. When she falls in love with a young man named Tony, there is less ebullience, excitement, and noise than one might expect in a tale about a young woman’s first love; instead, Eilis analyzes, questions, and, in the end, experiences a deep and quiet joy.
After arriving in Brooklyn, Eilis suffers one bout of homesickness, but then begins to put down roots. She takes accounting classes, volunteers to serve the poor at Christmas, and attends the church social dances, where she meets Tony. Eilis’ imperturbability and her gift for taking comfort in the familiar amidst the unfamiliar (the smell of her schoolbooks; the Irish drawl of the men she serves at Christmas; Tony’s uncanny ability to make her laugh, just as her brother once had), show readers that with humor, grace, and stoicism, one can make a home for oneself.
But Eilis never forsakes her home. After living in Brooklyn for two years, she returns to Enniscorthy for what begins as a visit but quickly, and passively, turns into a resumption of normal life in Ireland. Eilis, with her mother’s encouragement, delays her return trip to America, dates an Irish boy (at her friend’s encouragement), and is offered an excellent bookkeeping job. She writes to Tony, but only fitfully, and allows herself to drift away from him. She realizes she fits in both Brooklyn and Ireland; she’ll adapt and slowly mold to whichever country and whichever young man she chooses. Fundamentally, this is a book about adaptability, about fraught and deeply emotional choices that, in the end, might not matter as much as we think. After all, no matter which country Eilis chooses, we know she’ll survive and find happiness.
Eilis (spoiler alert) eventually chooses America over Ireland, not because of any deep-seated desire to return to America, nor even because of her love for Tony, but because of an external force: someone in Enniscorthy had discovered her secret marriage to Tony; thus, she needed to return to him or risk shaming herself and her family. Similarly to Eilis, that passivity, that feeling of being slowly tugged back towards one’s home, afflicted me as well. Once I got back, I realized I felt at home. I remembered I like baseball and football far more than I like rounders and rugby, and I’d rather drink a glass of milk than a pint. Unlike Eilis, I was not shoved back to Scotland by an external force. But I also chose America because of the one scene in Brooklyn which affected me far more than I realized the first time I read it and still continues to haunt me.
After Eilis discovers others know of her secret marriage, she goes home and tells her mother she must return to Brooklyn because she’s married. Her mother, who had been washing the dishes, put away the towel and turned slowly to face Eilis:
“‘Eily, if you are married, you should be with your husband . . . If you married him, he’d have to be nice, that’s what I think…I’ll go down and ask Joe Dempsey to collect you in the morning. I’ll ask him to come at eight so you’ll be in plenty of time for the train.’ She stopped for a moment and Eilis noticed a look of great weariness come over her. ‘And then I’m going to bed because I’m tired and so I won’t see you in the morning. So I’ll say goodbye now.’ ”
And with that, Eilis leaves home.