1. How would you describe Eilis’ family in terms of their feelings for each other and the ways they communicate?
2. Miss Kelly notes disapprovingly to Eilis that some people come into her shop on a Sunday to buy things, such as soap or toothpaste, that they should have bought during the week. Unspoken, because Miss Kelly and Eilis both understand it, is the Catholic belief that only necessary foods should be bought on Sunday. The Catholicism of all the main characters in the book is so taken for granted that very little is made of it, at least overtly. And yet it determines the characters’ most central values and beliefs. Give some examples of this.
3. Particularly at the beginning of the novel, some crucial scenes are not written. We never see the scene, for example, where Eilis and her family decide that she will go to America. We never see her farewell to her mother, except in a sentence recalled later. Why would Colm Toibin omit these scenes? Do these exclusions work for you? Do they suit – and reflect – the Lacey family, or the society as a whole?
4. The two societies depicted in the novel, mid-century Brooklyn and Enniscorthy, are quite stratified as to class. What are some examples of this? How does Eilis react to the class divisions?
5. Miss Fortini tells Eilis that Broadway is changing and Bartocci’s, the store they work for, must change with it. Post-war America was indeed a time of great social ferment. What are some of the ways the society is evolving, as we encounter them through Eilis’ experience?
6. During a clamorous sale at Bartocci’s, Eilis remembers a scene from home: "she thought in a flash of an early evening in October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy, the Slaney River glassy and full, and the smell of leaves burning from somewhere close by, and the daylight going slowly and gently." Discuss this as a piece of descriptive writing, and its function in this particular scene. How would you describe Toibin’s chosen style for this book and how it reflects the subject matter?
7. Toibin’s last book, The Master, centred on the novelist Henry James. In Brooklyn, he has chosen a very different central character, a young woman with a gift for bookkeeping and very little life experience. What are some of the techniques he uses to authentically portray this female character?
8. Brooklyn naturally strikes Eilis as very different from Enniscorthy. But there is much continuity, as well as discontinuity, between the two places. Discuss some of the similarities (which Eilis usually takes for granted) and differences she finds.
9. What do you make of the scene where Miss Fiorito helps Eilis choose a bathing suit? How does it contribute to the novel as a whole?
10. Most good novels contain a mixture of plot, character portrayal and social observation. Some are largely plot-driven, others focus predominantly on the characters or the society in general. In which category does Brooklyn fall?
11. By far the largest question in the book is the motivation of Eilis. Describe her character, and her occasional ambivalence. Why do you think, after having accepted Tony’s proposal, she seems to change her allegiance with relative speed once she arrives in Ireland? Does the ease with which she gets involved with Jim surprise you? What do you think Toibin is saying about the conflict between duty and the human heart?
12. At the start of the book, Rose is charismatic, while Eilis is less so. But once Eilis leaves for America, she begins to act more like her sister, becoming more assertive and independent. Once she returns to Ireland after Rose’s death, her mother wants her to wear Rose’s clothing, to live with her as Rose did. Eilis even begins to work for Rose’s old company. There are continuing references to reality, shadows and ghosts in the novel, and Eilis feels that she is becoming Rose’s ghost. Discuss the relationship between the sisters, Mrs. Lacey’s expectations about Eilis, and Eilis’ reaction to those expectations.
13. Eilis’ mother is enigmatic in some ways. How does she strike you in the first part of the book, before Eilis leaves? Does she show a different side of herself, after Eilis returns to Ireland? How much do you think she knows about Eilis and Tony? How do you interpret her response to Eilis’s final decision?
14. Even before the reader discovers that Miss Kelly and Mrs. Kehoe are related, it’s noticeable that they have some traits in common. What are they? Could they possibly derive from something larger than the family connection?
15. Who is a better match for Eilis, Tony or Jim? Why?
16. What do you think would have happened if Miss Kelly had never summoned Eilis to her apartment? Re-imagine another ending for the novel.