Let’s start this review on a high note. It is rare that a book makes me fall in love with a character, and Francie is one of those few characters. The character was perfectly written and there was something about her that just made me fall in love. From her book obsession to her fierce pride and quick wit – Francie captured my heart and imagination. Even at the end when she started into her teen years and came across as somewhat hostile she kept her innocence and I just wanted to give her a hug.
There is a quote by the Federico Fellini that I believe Francie embodies, “Put yourself into life and never lose your openness, your childish enthusiasm throughout the journey that life is and things will come your way.” (Full disclosure – I found this quote via the film Under the Tuscan Sun.) Definitely check out the quotes at the end to get an idea of her character.
Although this is the story of Francie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is really the story of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of immigrant families who spent time in New York at the turn of the 20th century. From the poverty and lack of education to the hope of a new life and the draw of opportunity, they all fit somewhere in this novel – if only briefly.
What I liked most about this novel, as mentioned above was Francie the narrator. She is everything New York is to me (not that I live there). She is smart, quick, driven, hell-bent on making something over herself and more importantly honest with herself. There were times when I wanted to cry out in frustration at Francie’s struggles, but unsurprisingly she pulled through and made me that much more proud of her. She goes out of her way to get into a better school and when she doesn’t think she’ll make it to college she does. There was one point where I had to take a deep breath because I thought for certain she was going to fall into the same routine as her parents and other female relatives, but thankfully she didn’t.
The other two things that struck me about the novel were the strong female characters and access to education. There was definitely an emphasis on female strength and ability to survive regardless of circumstances. All three Rommely women find ways to survive and more impressively thrive whether their husbands leave, or die, or they leave their husbands they each find a way to make it through and provide for their children. There was also a lot about access to education
If there is one drawback to the novel it’s that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere until the end. I guess you could say this is a character driven story and the plot is just sort of there as a background piece. The ‘action’ of the story doesn’t happen until the last 100 pages or so when all of a sudden two years goes by and the world is changing. I guess it could be a plot device, a commentary on the speed of the changing world and the speed of the war, but I didn’t really get that.
In addition the ending was a bit of a cop-out, but it made me smile and have that warm fuzzy feeling inside so I’m okay with it. It ended on just a high enough note leaving me with enough hope for the characters, the country and the world that I could truly appreciate it. In the afterward it said the film stopped before the ending of the novel (quite a bit before) and I didn’t understand why they would when this book is about the American dream and the hope of a better life and that’s what happens.
Recommendation: READ IT! I’m trying to decide if I want to keep a copy on my permanent shelf or if I should just donate it/resell it. It was really good but there were parts that seemed to drag. Hmmm, decisions, decisions.
Opening Line: “Serene was a word you could put in Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912.”
Closing Line: “‘Goodbye, Francie,’ she whispered. She closed the window.” (Whited out.)
“She liked the combined smell of work leather bindings, library paste and freshly-inked stamping pads better than she liked the smell of burning incense in high mass. Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world. She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones.” (20)
“There is here, what is not in the old country. In spite of hard unfamiliar things, there is here—hope. In the old country, a man can be no more than his father, providing he works hard. If his father was a carpenter, he may be a carpenter. He may not be a teacher or a priest. He may rise—but only to his father’s state. In the old country, a man is given to the past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.” (81)
“‘Because,’ explained Mary Rommely simply, ‘the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination…’” (83)
“The barrier between the individual sound of each letter and the whole meaning of the word was removed and the printed word meant a thing at one quick glance. She read a few pages rapidly and almost became ill with excitement. She wanted to shout it out. She could read! She could read! From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood.” (164)
“New york was disappointing. The buildings were higher and the crowds thicker; otherwise it was little different from Brooklyn. From now on, would all new things be disappointing, she wondered?” (370)
“Oh, I’m not conceited or anything, but after all, I read eight hours a day for almost a year and I learned things. I’ve got my own ideas about history and government and geography and writing and poetry. I’ve read too much about people—what they do and how they live. I’ve read about crimes and about heroic things. Mama, I’ve read about everything. I couldn’t sit still now in a classroom with a bunch of baby kids and listen to an old maid teacher drool away about this and that. I’d be jumping up and correcting her all the time. Or else, I’d be good and swallow it all down and then I’d hate myself for…well…eating much instead of bread. So I will not go to High School. But I will go to college someday.” (419)