Eilis Lacey is the polite and dutiful daughter of a widowed mother, and the admiring younger sibling of the beautiful Rose. The setting is shortly after World War II in the Irish town of Enniskorthy.
Living with her mother and sister, Eilis finishes her accounting course but cannot find a proper job. She starts work as a shop assistant to the snobbish Miss Kelly, who gives her only one day a week of work and pays her a pittance.
When an Irish priest visits from Brooklyn, Eilis's life is changed forever. Her mother and Rose arrange her emigration, making plans with Father Flood, who organizes a job and a place to stay.
Though Eilis does not wish to leave Enniskorthy, it is impossible for her to express her feelings to her mother or to Rose, whose purpose is to give her a great chance. In fact, by emigrating, Eilis knows she is sacrificing Rose's chance to do so. Their brothers are working in Liverpool and Mammy has never been left alone.
Young, inexperienced and socialized to refrain from showing disobedience, ingratitude or inner conflict, Eilis goes off to Brooklyn to begin work in a department store. Quiet and introverted, she is obliged to stay in Mrs. Kehoe's boarding house, enduring the gossip and bickering of the landlady and the other boarders as best she can.
When a wave of homesickness hits, Eilis goes to night school and completes a credential in book- keeping. She meets a professor whom she admires and she also meets an Italian boy, Tony. In the same way that she has drifted into her new life, she drifts into agreeing to marry Tony, in part out of an inability to say no or be impolite.
Bad news from home forces Eilis to put her American life on hold and return to Enniskorthy, where nobody has been told about Tony. Delighted to have her daughter home, Mrs. Lacey quietly engineers things. Eilis falls back into the familiar life she had before Brooklyn, and lives in a state of indecision, dreaming and drift, apparently going along with her mother's plans.
She finds a temporary job where she can use her bookkeeping skills. Then she allows herself to be maneuvered into the company of a nice local boy. Eilis puts off her return date to Brooklyn, stops writing to her boy friend in America and fails to re-book her passage on the ship.
Of course this state of suspension between two lives cannot last. The unpleasant Miss Kelly is the agent who connects Eilis's present behaviour and her American life back in Brooklyn. In fact, she goes so far as to threaten Eilis, who must then face the necessity of making her difficult choice.
Anyone who has ever left one country and created a life somewhere else can sympathize with the protagonist. The longer she is away from New York, the less real it seems. Still, for Eilis, there is no escaping the consequences of her choices, even though so many of the decisions that set the course of her life have been taken by others.
Eilis is young and inexperienced but intelligent. While her outer life is dutiful and polite, inwardly she lives a life rich with solitary imaginings. Her courage is strong, even though it has been curtailed by the society that has nurtured her: the time, place and circumstances.
This poignant and suspenseful novel (Scribner 2009) was produced as a talking book by Blackstone Audio. It is beautifully read by Kirsten Potter. Author Colm Toibin is interviewed on NPR here.
Note December 2015: Brooklyn is now a wonderful movie. Written by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley, it stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis. After its first showing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, it is now in local theatres.