‘It is Ireland in the early 1950s and for Eilis Lacey, as for so many young Irish girls, opportunities are scarce. So when her sister arranges for her to emigrate to New York, Eilis knows she must go, leaving behind her family and her home for the first time.
Arriving in a crowded lodging house in Brooklyn, Eilis can only be reminded of what she has sacrificed. She is far from home- and homesick. And just as she takes tentative steps towards friendship, and perhaps something more, Eilis receives news that sends her back to Ireland. There she will be confronted by a terrible dilemma- a devastating choice between two worlds.’
Usually when I know they’re making a film version of a book I want to read, I make an effort to read the book first. I almost always prefer the book to the film and I always think that the book will mean that you have all the necessary information to understand the film, often in a more accessible way. This was the first time I purposefully broke that rule. My attention was brought to the film first and, since it had my all time favourite actor Domhnall Gleeson playing Jim Farrell (left on the book cover) I just couldn’t wait to watch the film. So I broke my rule and I watched the film first.
Now, don’t get me wrong I adored the film. I thought the screenplay was beautifully written, the character of Eilis an interesting and positive image of an immigrant which unfortunately is rare nowadays. The performances by the whole cast was fantastic and although I didn’t take to the character of Tony that much it didn’t really surprise me because I was always going to prefer Jim.
However, I have to say that although I really enjoyed the film, the book was a very different experience. There’s an emphasis on issues within the 50’s that, sadly, you just don’t see in the film. For example, the issue of race and the different attitudes towards Bartocci’s marketing towards black customers is reduced to a deleted scene only available on the DVD of the film whereas it actually takes up a large part of Eilis’ dialogue at one stage in the book. Likewise with Eilis’ religion and her need to take confession after her first night with Tony. For me, the film ignored themes that were very interesting in the book and would have allowed a depth to the screenplay not just with regards to the time period but also the character of Eilis herself.
Almost paradoxically the film made both more and less of the potential romance with Jim Farrell too. Although they pushed Eilis’ choice between the two men to the forefront of the film, especially with regards to the marketing of the film, yet time-wise her relationship with Jim is greatly reduced. In the book, for example, Eilis kisses Jim on more than one occasion. It’s even described as passionate. But in the film they focus more on showing how Eilis and Jim bond through conversation rather than exploring the physicality. Although this clearly works very well on film I think they lose some of the complexity that the book depicts. In the book it is clear that Eilis’ choice doesn’t just lie between Brooklyn and Enniscorthy but also between Tony and Jim. And the reader can’t help but feel that if she hadn’t have married Tony she would stay and marry Jim. Yet in the film the choice is definitely more between Eilis and the opportunities for her in Brooklyn and her family back in Ireland. Which, considering the marketing for the film pushed so hard for the love triangle aspect seems quite odd.
That being said, I think to fully appreciate the novel you have to ignore the film and focus on what Toibin does well. Which is the story and the characters. They’re not all infallible characters of pure heart with nothing but good intentions. They’re human and they make bad decisions and are full of regret but also showcase the positives of the human spirit. Tony’s love of life, Eilis’s sense of duty and direction and Jim’s caring and respectful nature towards Eilis and what she wants. Although in places I did think the story was a bit rushed and the pace was too fast and I would have liked a bit more detail I thought it was an incredibly beautiful and moving story.
Of course, as someone who thought Tony was more than a little pushy and is personally much more in favour of Jim and his adorable nature and gentle respect I have to say the ending wasn’t for me. But then again life isn’t perfect, sometimes we have to live with the choices we’ve made and make the best of it. We can’t always marry Jim AND live in Brooklyn- we can’t have it all. Sometimes your beloved sister dies and you can’t do anything to save her. Life isn’t fair and we just have to make the best of our choices and what I love about Toibin is that despite the fact it’s clear Eilis falls for Jim, at least a little, and may even regret marrying Tony she is never once petulant about it. She knows what she has to do and tries to make the best of the situation. Sometimes it’s nice to see a character who can’t just have a magic fix all solution, life isn’t that pretty.
I did adore this book but it a few details like Jim’s broken heart meant I could only give it 4 stars.