Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

brooklyn-9781501106477_hr Brooklyn

by Colm Toibin

For some reason I’m not sure of, I’m drawn to novels set in Ireland or containing Irish characters.  That really was the only reason I bought this book on one of my browsing forays at Barnes & Noble; I didn’t even know that there is now a film out based on this novel.

Set in post WWII Ireland and New York, this is the story of young (twentyish?  Her age is never specified) Eilis Lacey, the youngest of a passel of children in a family whose home is Enniscorthy, Ireland.  The brothers have all left home, the father has died, and Eilis lives with her older, glamorous sister, Rose, and their aging mother.  Somehow it is decided between Rose and Mrs. Lacey that Eilis will move to America; they foresee opportunities for her there that are probably not possible in her small hometown.  The arrangements are all made without anybody ever asking Eilis how she feels about it, but being the compliant, people-pleasing young woman she is, she makes no protest, and off to New York she goes.  Once settled in a boarding house for women in Brooklyn, and after a brief bout of severe homesickness, Eilis begins to find her way in her new surroundings.

Of course she meets a young man – that comes as no surprise.  Their relationship moves rather quickly, and when Eilis receives tragic news from back home in Ireland, Tony convinces her to make an impulsive decision that will have lasting consequences.

Eilis travels back in Ireland to tend to her family in the wake of their loss, intending to stay for a month and then return to Brooklyn and to Tony, but she soon finds comfort in the familiarity of home and in the arms of another man.

I enjoyed this novel, although it didn’t dazzle me.  I actually found the first half or so rather sedate, if pleasantly readable.  Things don’t really pick up until Eilis goes back to Ireland, and what ensues then left me cringing, muttering, “Oh no … this can’t end well …”  On some level, though, you almost can’t blame Eilis for what happens; it all seems somewhat out of her control – her move to Brooklyn was decided and arranged without her input, and the relationship with Jim Farrell once back in Ireland is something that was, to some degree, orchestrated behind her back.  Eilis is in some ways a bit of flotsam, swept this way and that by a current beyond her control.

In the end, the reader is left to figure out for themselves how things work out; I appreciate that sort of ending.

Brooklyn is a nice little novel; I’ll probably see the film if only because it looks like a beautifully done period piece.

The Crooked Branch by Jeanine Cummings

51BhHSRZYmL._SY300_ The Crooked Branch: A Novel
by Jeanine Cummings

The book opens in modern-day New York, where Majella is in the hospital, laboring to bring her first baby into the world.  After a long and difficult labor, she undergoes a c-section, a disappointment which seems to set the tone for her adjustment to new motherhood, which, she finds, is not what she expected it to be.  Moreover, she doesn’t feel like she’s the mother she envisioned she would be.  She suffers frequent and spontaneous crying jags, a feeling of loss of identity, and basically feels lost, adrift, and overwhelmed.  Becoming a mother has also brought her relationship with her own mother into sharp focus, and leaves much to be desired.  Her struggles are told with sensitivity and humor, and Majella is just so darn likeable as she tries to regain her footing and embrace this new role she’s taken on.

While Majella recuperates from her baby’s birth, she finds an old diary in the attic of her childhood home.  The diary belonged to her great-great-grandmother, Ginny Doyle, who lived through the potato famine in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century.   The diary contains ominous references to a murder and the terrible resulting guilt Ginny lived with, and Majella is left wondering if she has somehow inherited “bad mother” genes from this distant ancestor.

We are presented with small bits of Ginny’s story by way of the diary, but her story is really told in alternating chapters with Majella’s story, and it is a harrowing and heart wrenching story.  The author manages to intertwine the two stories of Majella and Ginny so deftly – I was truly in awe of her mastery of her craft.

Both stories are told so beautifully, so authentically . . . it’s one of those books that I felt as if I had climbed into and was witnessing firsthand every time I opened it.  And I didn’t want to put it down!  It kept me turning pages, wanting to know what was going to happen next.

I could relate to so much of Majella’s postpartum/new mother struggles, as I’ve experienced so much of it myself, and I thought the author did a wonderful job capturing the emotional roller coaster that new motherhood is for so many women.  I felt like Majella was a down-to-earth girlfriend, and I often found myself nodding my head as I read her narrative.  The story of Ginny and her family trying to survive the horrors of famine kept me on the edge of my seat, and I kept rooting for her.  Both women’s stories had me laughing and crying at different times.  This is one of those books that left me sorry to have read the last page because I had become so attached to the characters and I didn’t want the story to end.

This is a wonderful, gorgeous book that really got under my skin.  Read it.