Brooklyn: a subtle beauty I failed to capture?

I had always wanted to join a book group, they sounded so sophisticated and also so unattainable. Anyone I knew that was a member of a book group would merrily tell me how wonderful it was, but never would they invite me to come along. So I used my most-favoured crutch: the internet.  When suffering from an ailment which could be a common cold but might be something more sinister: I turn to the internet to find a diagnosis; when I have a fridge full of broccoli slowly withering before my eyes and no idea what to do with it: I turn to the internet to find a recipe; when I feel the need to join a book group but no one wants to take me into their fold: I turn to the internet.

However my search proved to be relatively fruitless. I discovered one fairly well-publicised book group that came top of the list when I carried out my search but I was told there was a waiting list, and I would have to sit patiently until a space became available. I was stunned, I had no idea that book groups had become the new private members club, if your name is not on the list apparently you can’t get in.

Then a good friend of mine rather sensibly pointed out: “You could just start your own. I’d come!”

So that was it, my key to happiness in the gloomy month of January: I was going to set up a book group. It might only have two members but that would suffice for now, maybe I’d contact the other bigger better one that I found on the internet and suggest they gave me some of the people they had on their waiting list to up my numbers.

The inspirational and loyal friend gave me the title of the first book we would read; Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, a book which she’d found in a charity shop on the weekend and heard was supposed to be good. Given that I currently have approximately three novels by this man sitting on my book shelves which have so far gone unread, I was grateful that I would soon be adding a fourth read one to my collection, and I would at long last discover what his writing was all about. An e-mail was sent out and to my surprise I found that over 10 friends were highly enthusiastic and eager to join the group, it was taking shape.

And so what of Brooklyn, the novel that had nothing but the highest praises emblazoned on its cover, the critics promising me a work that was not only magnificent but also unforgettable.  One respected newspaper even declared it novel of the year. I had a friend that had already read it and happily backed this bold statement.

It was thus with great disappointment that I found myself gliding through the pages of this novel waiting for my breath to be taken away, to be bowled over  by its magnificence; yet I firmly remained sat with my lungs comfortably breathing at a steady rhythm, no breath whipped away at any given instance.

In fact much to my surprise I found I lacked any great feeling for Eilis, the character around whom the book is constructed and the protagonist of the tale. The last two books I read had me in tears, I somehow knew this one was meant to have the same effect on me but my eyes remained dry. I’d even had a friend e-mail me to tell me how she’d cried on the tube into work as she read the last part of the novel.

The story is written about the life of a young Irish girl that’s whisked away to America to make her life there. We witness her slowly adapting to her different life as she struggles with home sickness, she meets some wonderful characters on her way to America but sadly these are simply fleeting glimpses of characters with apparently so much more substance than Eilis that would have given the book the energy I felt it needed, but Toibin only teases us with these. As we know from the beginning Eilis has to return home to Ireland after a tragedy in the family and it was not difficult for me to guess what this might be, given that the synopsis has told us so much I expected a twist, a surprise but I waited in vain. When I came to the end of the book I felt it was a nice tale, I’d been compelled to read on, the ending was sadly unsatisfactory and it was very far from being anything that came close to my book of the year. I’d wanted more from this book, I’d expected more and alas I came away disappointed.

With hindsight I can now reluctantly recognise some of myself  in Eilis’ indecisive character, maybe this is why she infuriated me at moments and even conjured up something inside me which was close to dislike.  It’s never pleasant to see an unattractive side of yourself perfectly portrayed on paper.

When at last the evening of the book group arrived I was somewhat overwhelmed to find I was the only one that felt the book didn’t match up to what was promised on its cover. I was enthralled to hear of tears shed at certain moments of the book and a genuine sense of care for Eilis, who I felt was so plain and characterless that I found it hard to muster up any empathy for her.

As I listened to others appreciate and profess their love for Toibin’s piece of literary work I began to wonder if all the hype about the novel had not ruined my reading of it; I had wanted something to bowl me over, deliver a strong sharp punch to my stomach that left me winded. I was horrified to find that I had become a greedy reader, I wanted action, more sex, more drama. I had never been someone that liked or searched for the cheap thrills offered by the block-busting films with their orgy of special-effects, in fact since the special effects usually replaced any decent script writing or plot, I enthusiastically avoided them. Why then did I have a different attitude to the recent book I read and expect so much from Brooklyn and felt it failed to deliver? Those around me had appreciated its unassuming, lilting nature; the subtlety that is applied in the formation of its structure and the wealth of information that could be gleaned by reading between its simple lines.

It was at this point I had an epiphany: this was the real reason for forming a book group; not to look good or intellectual, not to have an excuse to drink lots of wine with friends, nor to show off whatever literary appreciation skills you feel you may have up your sleeve; but to enhance your enjoyment of that book, to increase your reading pleasure. And in my case to learn more about myself, and the manner in which I approach books.

The evening was a success, everyone enjoyed themselves and was eager to carry on with another book next month. I not only enjoyed myself but learnt something: I think sometimes reading can be such a solitary activity that I’m able to lose myself in my own world, views and opinions; a book group thrusts one back out into the world of others, and in my case taught me just how limiting or sheltered my views can sometimes be. Next time I start to read a book which I find lacks the zest I’m craving I shall try to read a little more carefully between its lines to make sure I’m not missing out on a subtle beauty to which I was blind.

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