Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Discussion Guide for Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I enjoy leading book groups. When I lead, I write up a discussion guide to use.  Feel free to ask your own questions or discuss your own observations or reactions in the comments section.

All page numbers refer to the first Scribner hardcover edition, May 2009.


Eilis Lacey, pronounced “Eye-lish”, main character who is trained as a bookkeeper and moves from Ireland to Brooklyn in the early 1950s.
Rose, Eilis’ 30 year old, and only, sister
Jack, Pat and Martin, Rose and Eilis’ brothers
Miss Kelly, rigid shopkeeper in Eilis’ hometown of Enniscorthy where Eilis works
Nancy Byrne, Eilis best friend in Enniscorthy
Annette O’Brien, friend in Enniscorthy
George Sheridan, Nancy’s fiancĂ©
Jim Farrell, cool toward Eilis in Part One, wants to marry her in Part Four
Father Flood, Irish priest who now lives in Brooklyn
Mrs. Kehoe, Irish boardinghouse owner
Miss McAdam, Sheila Heffernan, Patty McGuire, Diana Montini, Miss Keegan (leaves the boarding house), Dolores Grace (arrives after Miss Keegan leaves), boarding housemates
Miss Bartocci, daughter of the owner of Bartocci’s where Eilis works in Brooklyn
Miss Fortini, Eilis’ supervisor at Bartocci’s
Tony, Eilis’ boyfriend and then husband

Discussion Topics

Brooklyn centers on themes of home and returning home, going away and coming of age and an immigrant’s life.  There are myriad other facets of the book to discuss and each reader may find connections to his or her life that are great points for jumping off as discussion topics. Below are some starting points of topics.  Peruse them and find which ones are most intriguing to your group’s discussion and develop your own topics for which you want to express your perspective or hear others’ reactions.

Going Away and Arriving

Shortly after she arrives in Brooklyn, Eilis has both strong feelings of absorbing the newness around her and strong feelings of homesickness.  How did you react to each of these emotions as Eilis dealt with them and characters around her offered their insights?
Eilis express that
“For each day… she needed a whole other day to contemplate what had happened and store it away,” page 60
When have you felt feelings of newness and a need for time to absorb them? 
On dealing with homesickness, Jack tells Eilis,
“In the first few months I couldn’t find my way around at all and I was desperate to go home.”  Page 38
Eilis express one facet of her homesickness on page 69,
“She was nobody here.”
Did you find Eilis’ feelings of homesickness rang true? 
Miss Fortini’s perspective on homesickness is very matter of fact as is Father Flood’s reaction.
“But the sadness won’t last so we’ll see what we can do for you.” Page 76.
“You’re homesick, that’s all.  Everybody gets it… And the rule is to have someone to talk to and keep busy.” Page 78.
Eilis thinks of managing her homesickness as
“it would be like covering a table with a table cloth, or closing curtains on a window;” page 79.
In time Eilis homesickness diminishes.  What led to that change?
Summer camp directors often share the wisdom of offering distraction and immersion to deal with homesickness in campers.  How did Eilis manage her homesickness?

When have you dealt with homesickness and what strategies have you employed?

Historical Insight

What were the clues Toibin used to show the time period and setting?  Was it difficult for you to figure out when the novel took place?

Some of the scenes the author paints to show facets of life in Brooklyn in the 1950s are the description of how laundry was managed in the boarding house (page 58), how sales were conducted in a store (page 63), the mix of ethnicities at Brooklyn College (page 82), selling nylons to black women (page 114), going to Singing in the Rain (page 143), going to Coney Island (page 164), going to a Dodger’s game (page 170).

Which of these or others were most helpful in setting the time and place of the novel?  How was your enjoyment of the novel expanded or diminished by these insights into life in Brooklyn?

Eilis’ Choices

Beyond getting a job, why do you think Eilis went to America? How did her relationship with her family frame that choice each of the two times she set out for America? 

How did what Eilis shared and withheld from her letter writing shape her relationship with her family?  How did her letter shape her experience in Brooklyn?  Facebook is often analyzed as a place where people share only the good bits in their lives, creating a false impression of how happy every one is.   This is very similar to Eilis’ letter writing approach.  Do you think this is a natural human tendency?  What are the range of reasons that people chose not to share a complete account of their lives?
When have you chosen to share less than a full account of your encounters?

How were Eilis’ reasons for choosing to return to Brooklyn different from the first time she left for Brooklyn?  Did Eilis have more or less involvement with her decision the second time?  Do you think Eilis would have returned to America if she hadn’t gotten married to Tony?  
How do you think her life will unfold? 
What choice would you have made?

Pairs of Contrast

Throughout the book there are pairs of contrast:
  •   Leaving home and arriving in Brooklyn
  •  Excitement at the newness of Brooklyn and sadness of homesickness
  •  The boarding house girls who are extroverts and live it up and those who are restrained
  •  Tony and Jim
What contrasting pairs did you find in Brooklyn?  How do these contrasts shape Eilis as a character?  Are there two sides to Eilis’ character?  Are there multiple contrasting elements of her character?

Eilis’ Personality

How did you view Eilis?  Were you sympathetic to her as a character?  Did you see her as having or lacking passion?  How was she shaped by her family life and by the time period in which she grew up?  In what ways does Eilis control her life and in what ways do others control her life? 

When have you let your life be controlled by others?  When have you taken control?

Book Structure

The book is told in four parts.  Each part begins a new stage of Eilis’ life:
Part One: Eilis in Enniscorthy
Part Two: Eilis new to Brooklyn
Part Three: Eilis moves to the basement room
Part Four: Eilis arrives back in Ireland
How did each of these parts map to Eilis’ transformation as a character?  Which section did you enjoy the most?

If you were mapping your life so far into parts, where would you make the transitions between the segments in your life story?

Going Home

Perhaps one of the most evident themes in the book is the age-old question of whether we can ever return home.  The pull toward home is evident not just in Part Four of the book where Eilis is drawn back into her home life, but in her initial homesickness in Brooklyn and in her letters back and forth to her family. 
Where else do you recognize the theme of returning home in the novel?  How does each of these events shape the idea of being able to return home? 
How did Eilis answer this question in her life?

How would you answer this question for yourself?

What novels have you read where this theme was highlighted?  If you are looking for a “going home” theme in books to discuss with your group I suggest Tony Morrison’s, Home and on the lighter side, Breakfast with Buddha.


  1. You write that Rose is Eilis’ 30 year old sister. Where in the text does it say how old Rose is? And how old is Eilis? She is the younger sister but does it say anywhere how old she is?

  2. Always look for ages, full name and occupations shortly after a character is first introduced. In this case, Rose's age follows the description of her working in the office of Davis's Mills around a dozen pages into the novel.

  3. The character "Eilis" is pronounced "Ay-lish" in the movie, also in You-Tube videos of Saoirse Ronan talking about the character. Not "Eye-lish".

  4. Toibin actually uses "Eye-lish" as his pronunciation although he also says that he doesn't "worry about internationalizing" himself.

    The reader can work out what pronunciation works for his or her reading. Some readers don't 'hear' a name as they read, they only see it as a combination of letters. Which are you?

  5. Is this book appropriate for a 13 year old girl? Thanks.

    1. I don't consider it a young adult book and doubt my 13-year old avid readers would have enjoyed this book. However, every child is different The book can be easily skim-read by an adult to see if it's something that might be appropriate for your child.

  6. I read this novel for school and really enjoyed it! Especially all the metaphors like the ocean, the contrast in Eilis' employment etc. however I don't understand the significance of the "black umbrellas"!! Eilis first notices black umbrellas in Miss Kelly's shop before Miss Kelly offers her the job, then after Miss Kelly implies that she knows of Eilis' marriage, she tells Eilis not to "forget [her] umbrella" and then Eilis realises after she has booked her voyage home that she "had left her umbrella in the post office but did not go back to collect it." There are too many inclusions for it to be nothing!! The protection that her life in Ireland provides her feels too simplistic - I cannot figure it out! Do you have an interpretation for this?


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