This week, Chicago author Patrick Somerville, whose novel The Cradle is a favorite of ours here at the library, muses from an author’s perspective on how stories end.
What are endings? It seems like the answer to the question is obvious, as we know a good one when we see one and likewise know a bad one when we feel that sinking feeling, or when we frown a little in confusion, or when we find ourselves thinking things like: this is really what happens? Or: they’re (the story-makers) really going to end it like this? Sometimes it feels unfair. Knowing a good ending from a bad one, though, is a lot easier than defining what makes endings work, or why they work, or why we tend to place such importance on them.
I find the ending of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn to be just about perfect. When I closed the book, I didn’t know what it was that had worked so well in those final pages, and instead of trying to reverse engineer it all, as half-cocked writers are sometimes prone to do, I just let myself steep in the pleasure of how skillfully Tóibín manages to dramatize Eilis’s frustrating and bittersweet dilemma. On the one hand, America is terribly hard, but Tóibín keeps her there just long enough to let Eilis establish a new life for herself. What’s more, this new life has great potential. Isn’t it fair to say that more growth is possible for our heroine—in terms of her career, in terms of her personal freedoms—in Brooklyn than in Enniscorthy?
Then again, home is home, and we’ve watched that same freedom, which audiences in the contemporary West tend to root for as an unequivocally great thing, knock Eilis around, leave her feeling lost. So another part of me wanted her to stay within the safe confines of Enniscorthy—for her mother’s sake, yes, but stay for herself, too. Home offers the same old constraints, but they’re the same, they’re knowable, they can be managed and controlled. They might grind on you, but they won’t grind you down to dust.
The ending of Brooklyn comes down to a choice. And yet that choice carries with it all the deep complexities of the world Eilis has been exposed to since she began to lose control over her decisions very early in the book. It’s a deeply real choice in that either option inflicts great pain on somebody, and both options will result in pain for Eilis. Novelists work for years to get their characters to such focused, dramatic, and meaningful precipices. On the one hand, simple. On the other, not at all. Alongside it, a question: What will she do?
If Tóibín were a different kind of writer, now would have been the time to find some hybrid resolution, some secret passageway of unexpected events to allow Eilis to escape her dilemma unscathed. Jim Farrell would have a terrible, dark secret (murdered his cousin with a trowel twelve years ago?), and Tony would move to Ireland, punch him, and create a successful house-building business there. Or perhaps Eilis, in a moment of exceptional eloquence, would make a tremendous speech in the public square, and her mother would agree to move to Brooklyn. Rose, you see, left behind a secret fortune in golf winnings, buried in a sand trap on the 16th hole, and it’s enough money to buy a nice Park Slope brownstone whose value will increase by a factor of 30 by the year 2010!
Tóibín is not like that.
Endings are exciting; endings provide us with resolution and help us to understand what the future holds for characters we’ve come to care about. But they’re also nudges that remind us of what stories have been about all along—they help us look back through events and interpret the experience one last time. Brooklyn is a story of emigration and immigration, and the story of a certain time in Irish and American life. Because of its closing act, though, I left the book thinking it’s also a book about the profound sadness and impossible choices that leaving one’s homeland will automatically create. And true to life, Tóibín honors that sadness by leaving it alone and showing it for what it is: complicated and painfully definitive. Eilis has to choose, and she does. She will regret it, in ways, just as she would have regretted the opposite decision.
Nevertheless, after the choice and after the book, life goes on. What’s more true than that?