The Plucky Irish Heroine of ‘Brooklyn’ Is Back — and in Crisis

LONG ISLAND, by Colm Tóibín

In the early 1950s, Eilis Lacey, a fictional character, said goodbye to Enniscorthy, the real town in County Wexford, Ireland, where her creator, the novelist Colm Tóibín, would be born a few years later. She crossed the Atlantic, making her way to Brooklyn and into “Brooklyn,” Tóibín’s near-perfect 2009 novel about her emigration.

Eilis was often lonely, but she was hardly alone. In the 1950s, Ireland lost more than 15 percent of its population to emigration; 50,000 of those who left made their way to America. But Eilis wasn’t a statistic or a symbol: She was a soul — a witty, observant, sometimes anxious young woman finding her way and her place in the world. (Both her caution and her boldness were superbly captured by Saoirse Ronan in John Crowley’s film adaptation.)

Where would Eilis go from Brooklyn? The obvious answer, supplied in the title of Tóibín’s new novel, “Long Island,” was foreshadowed in the earlier book. On one of their dates, Tony Fiorello, a Bensonhurst plumber and Eilis’s eventual husband, tells her about his plan to start a construction business with his brothers out on the island, with a cluster of houses where the whole extended Fiorello family will live.

As “Long Island” gets underway, that plan has long since come to pass. It’s the mid-1970s, and Eilis has taken part in another large-scale demographic movement, the exodus from the cities to the suburbs. She lives with Tony and their two teenage children near a bevy of in-laws.

The voyage to America, encouraged by her older sister, Rose, and enabled by a helpful priest, wasn’t entirely Eilis’s idea. Neither was the relocation to Long Island — that was Tony’s dream. But Eilis is hardly passive. She is an interesting and vivid character because she manages to make her destiny her choice. She may be constrained, in Lindenhurst as in Enniscorthy, by social norms and family expectations, but in her own mind, and in the eyes of sympathetic readers, she is free.

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