Both a coming-of-age novel and an immigrant’s tale, Brooklyn: a Novel, written by Colm Toibin, tells the story of Eilis, a young Irish woman who is intelligent yet inexperienced in the ways of the world. We meet Eilis first in Enniscorthy, Ireland, during the early 1950s, where she lives with her widowed mother and her outgoing elder sister Rose. Jobs are hard to find in Ireland; Eilis’ brothers have left the country to work in England. Rose contacts Father Flood, an Irish priest working in Brooklyn and arrangements are made for Eilis to get a job there. The author portrays Eilis as a submissive daughter and sister, afraid to leave her home for the unknown yet willing to do so because it is expected of her.
As Eilis embarks on her journey across the ocean to her new life in Brooklyn, she rides a roller coaster of new experiences that include independence, adjustment to a new culture, and romance. She meets Tony who comes from a warm Italian family, much different from her own. She attends Brooklyn College, earns a certificate in bookkeeping and obtains the promise of a bookkeeping position from her current employer. Her life is going well; then, tragedy strikes. Eilis is notified that her sister Rose has died. At first bereft and then guilt-ridden when her brother sends a letter urging her to go to Ireland to look after their mother, Eilis and Tony confer and together decide that she will visit her mother for a short while and then return to Brooklyn to Tony and her new life. Tony insists that Eilis marry him in a civil ceremony before leaving for Ireland, to be followed by a church wedding when she returns.
Once in Ireland, Eilis falls into a routine of caring for her mother, meeting up with friends and garnering the interest of a young man who she previously thought to be ill-mannered. Also, she is offered a job at the company where Rose worked. Never having told her mother that she was going with a young man in Brooklyn, Eilis is unable to tell her that she has married. It looks as though she could settle into life in Ireland again, although it would be a deceitful choice. But then a chance encounter with an old employer shocks Eilis into honesty, confessing to her mother about Tony and beginning her journey back home the next day.