Eilis (AYE-lish) reluctantly immigrates to New York from a small town in Ireland, leaving all she knows behind. Homesickness is almost crippling until Eilis begins to embrace her new life, making friends and finding work. The author captures the isolation and struggle of the immigrant experience well. When tragedy strikes, she discovers that returning to the old world can be as much of a challenge as adjusting to the new world. There is a sense that when she is in one place, the other has become a sort of fantasy and feels very far removed.
There is an emotionally handicapped quality to Eilis, who can’t seem to take charge of her own life and is swayed too easily by a sense of duty or by what others want of her. Toibin portrays well the fact that life is a collection of choices. Eilis seems to let destiny make most of her choices for her. Emotions are submerged and relationships suffer because of ambiguity and passivity. Perhaps during these 1950s immigration times, that’s just how it was for young women like Eilis. Some have drawn parallels to the character of Isabel Archer in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James with similar themes of freedom, responsibility, betrayal, and sexuality.
This was a book club assignment for me, and since I have often seen this author’s name, I was glad to read one of his books. It was highly readable and interesting to discuss, if not a bestseller. I will definitely read more by this author at some point. The writing is intriguing because it is unadorned and unsentimental, but has depth, layers, and themes to explore.