Contrasting the social propriety of the 1950s with one girlís needs and yearnings, Colm Toibin traces the gradual maturing of Eilis Lacey, who leaves her homeland and her beloved home for a time to work in America, leaving her mother, her sister, Rose, and her friends behind in Ireland.
Until now content to live in the small village of Enniscorthy and work at Miss Kellyís, the local grocery shop,
Eilis is persuaded to journey forth by Father Flood, who voices shock at Eilisís low pay and instills in her a promise of life in America, where thereís plenty of work for someone like her.
With Eilisís older brothers long gone to England,
sister Rose tactfully arranges for Eilis to go to America. Eilis heeds her beautiful sisterís advice,
trying to bury the fear and dread that sheís going to lose her world in Ireland forever. Convincing herself
that she is looking forward to America and at peace with leaving home for the first time, she tries to see America with ďan almost compensating glamour.Ē
The transatlantic trip, however, is anything but fashionable. The stormy voyage causes terrible seasickness as Eilis vomits up her boiled mutton,
roiled by the shuddering and lunging as the huge ocean liner lumbers across the vast ocean. Once safely ensconced in Brooklyn, Eilis cannot believe the extent of her naivetť as she battles
the terrible crippling weight of homesickness. Enniscorthy comes to her in flashing pictures of the life she has lost and will never have again.
Eilis is stuck in Brooklyn with no friends and family. Even the other girls who lodge at Mrs. Kehoeís boarding house, with their daily talk of changing fashions and petty judgment,s can do little to assuage the sadness that seems to melt into and float on the surface,
always distracting her. The days working on the shop floor of Bartocciís seem to be the longest in Eilisís life; only the officious manager Miss Fortini offers a sentimental type of consolation.
A sudden distraction arrives in the form of Tony, a handsome Italian American who distracts Eilisís confusing synthesis of emotions.
She gradually slips into Tonyís world, and that of his family and the apartment where he lives with his parents and his three brothers.
The two start courting - an evening in Manhattan to see a film, a day at the beach at Coney Island, and then to baseball game
- yet Eilis remains plagued by self-doubt when she realizes that Tony wants to marry her.
She continues to harbor grand plans of a career as a bookkeeper.
Speaking to a disparate and questionable long-distance love and its accompanying challenges and rewards, this gentle but rather uneventful novel plods along as Toibin charts the growth of Eilis as a woman and
independent spirit. When tragedy strikes, forcing Eilis to face the
ramifications of her choices, she returns home and soon finds everything that happened in Brooklyn almost dissolving, no longer richly present in her life. The author perfectly captures Eilisís painful confusion and loneliness, and her eventual bittersweet acceptance of her fate even as she battles the moral confines of a church and society that seem to have made her decision for her.