LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Eilis, a recent immigrant to the US, is working in a department store in Brooklyn]
She was surprised by some of the items of clothing for sale. The cups of some of the brassieres seemed much more pointed than anything she had seen before, and an item called a two-way stretch, which looked as though it had plastic bones in the middle, was new to her. The first thing she sold was called a brasalette, and she decided that, when she knew the other boarders at Mrs Kehoe’s well enough, she would ask one of them to take her through these items of American women’s underwear.
The work was easy. Miss Fortini was interested only in timekeeping and tidiness and making sure that the slightest complaint or query was immediately conveyed to her.
She was not hard to locate, Eilis discovered, as she was always watching, and if you seemed to be having the smallest difficulty with a customer and if you were not seen to be smiling, Miss Fortini would notice and begin to move towards you, signalling to you, stopping only if she saw that you looked both busy and pleasant.
commentary: I read this book when it first came out, and was underwhelmed by it. The recent film – written by blog favourite Nick Hornby, starring Saoirse Ronan – is highly enjoyable, and made me think I should re-read the book. I liked it better this time, though still find it very flat and passive. When writing about Ford Madox Ford a while back, I contrasted Ford with Toibin and Jane Austen:
Colm Toibin, talking about his plan for his book Brooklyn, said he’d noticed that Jane Austen’s novels were very linear – no going back, just descriptions of what happened, one event after another. A few hours spent in Ford’s company and you are longing for that simplicity.--- but in the long run I’d rather read Ford, and prefer his style.
The book tells the story of Eilis, a young woman in Ireland in the early 1950s. There is not much future for her in her small hometown in Wexford (Enniscorthy, a place I know well). So off she goes to America, leaving behind her much-loved sister Rose and her mother. At first she is miserable and homesick, but gradually life improves. A family tragedy brings her back to Ireland for a visit, and now it looks as though there could be a future for her in her old home. How can she decide what to do?
There is a lot about clothes and Toibin is careful and convincing on the subject – from the fellow-lodger who looks ‘like a horse-dealer’s wife in Enniscorthy on a fair day’, to the acquired trick of putting your swimsuit on under your clothes before going to the beach – an American habit.
There are very funny scenes, particularly in the boarding-house with Mrs Kehoe the landlady and the other young women lodgers. There are no extremes in the book: on the whole people have good motives and behave well, they are nice.
Toibin’s high-quality writing, and the clever structure, stood out more on a second reading, though I still don’t quite know why people are so enthusiastic about it. The ending of the book is much less definite than the film – screenwriter Hornby explained that very clearly in an interview, and although the book does leave you uncertain, I gather that to some extent this is resolved in Toibin’s more recent book, Nora Webster. (NW is a fleeting minor character in this one.) I like an equivocal ending myself.
I am always particularly interested in books about the immigrant experience – like the somewhat similar Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds. This one dealt with the topic well, and was a good read. And I can really recommend the film.
Top picture is a fashion advert of 1951, the lower one is a picture of Burdine’s department store’s lingerie section in 1953, from the Library of Congress.