I find the accolades accorded to this book mystifying. A few weeks ago Toibin won the Costa Novel of the Year Award for it; the Costa is a prestigious British literary prize given to authors from the U.K. and Ireland. He was favored to win the bigger prize, the Costa Book of the Year, but lost to poet Christopher Reid. (This happened yesterday! Aren’t I current?)
I keep hearing about how subtle this book is—“modest” (Washington Post), and “understated” (Los Angeles Times). How about bland? Ordinary? Unremarkable? Those would be my words.
In the book, Eilis, a young woman, leaves her mother and sister in Ireland and moves to Brooklyn at the behest of a priest who has promised to find her work and a place to live. She does not particularly want to go, but is too passive to resist all the well meaning efforts of friends and family who see the move as an exit from the poverty and backwardness of a 1950’s Irish village. In New York, Eilis thrives despite her trepidation, though her motivation stems more from a continued desire to please Father Flood and her family than to really succeed. She gets an education and a boyfriend and some stylish new clothes. But the sudden death of Eilis’s sister Rose calls her back to Ireland and while there, Eilis must decide once and for all where she truly belongs. Or, maybe, as per usual, someone will decide for her.
Eilis is a sap and her boyfriend Tony is a bully. Everyone else is from Central Casting. If this book were written by a woman, it would have had a pink cover and been shelved with the romance novels. It’s not even as good as the best of Maeve Binchy’s offerings—I like Maeve Binchy, but in 30 years of writing she’s never won a major literary award like the Costa.
(Book 3, 2010)