Thursday 24 January 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This was the Dec/Jan selection for my book group. I have always wanted to read it and in fact the book had been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years but never quite made it to the top spot.

Oprah listed the novel as one of her top 10 books and one book that has had the most impact on her. Janell highly recommended the book and encouraged my reading of it.

I wish I could say it moved me as much as it did these other women of note. But it just didn't.

The story is compelling but extraordinarily simplistic and full of superficial characterizations. The main character Francie Nolan lives in Brooklyn and is born into poverty. Her father, an Irishman, is a drunk (stereotype 1). Her mother loved him once but now finds little time for love in her long hard days of working to keep food on the table for the family. She is not always successful. Francie's older brother, Neeley, is hardly developed as a character at all except when it comes time for Francie to go to high school and her mother picks him to go even though he doesn't want to rather than Francie who is desperate to go. Francie starts working full time at the age of 14 after the early death of her father at the age of 34 in a flower shop. Eventually she finds a better job in the city of Manhattan. She gets her heart broken by a young man heading off to war. She ultimately meets a sweetheart and goes to get her high school diploma and college education. Her mother remarries a nice Irish man who is a retired police officer. All live happily ever after. I'm not entirely sure what happens to Neeley.

The plot is supported by peripheral characters including her mother's sisters who are characterised as mere contrasting stereotypes of women as if to show the reader the vast choices available. The novel is set in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. Brooklyn is rough today and was even rougher then.

I was fascinated by the descriptions of the tenements and the sense of community.

I was utterly dismayed when I read the quote on the front page informing me that the book was written in the tradition of Angela's Ashes. That book was written a good 60 years after A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Wasn't Angela's Ashes therefore written in the tradition of ATGiB?

This is a good book but I don't believe it is worth a spot in the top literary events of the last century.

Book Group Verdict: Ok, I finished this book back at the end of December in anticipation of our 12 January meeting which was postponed until 31 January. Want to get this published NOW!


eyes_only4him said...

im not much of s bppk reader, I have a crappy imagination and it gives me a headache;)

thanks 4 stopping by my blog, please stop by again;)

Janell said...

I was a teen when I read this one. I really identified with Francie, and was amazed at how much we thought alike even tho we lived in different times and opposite living situations. (city vs country) Sorry it didn't interest you more.