Thursday, 5 May 2011

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

It seems a while since I updated my blog but I've been engrossed in a book! I have a weakness for coming-of-age novels and vintage American literature so Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a perfect read for me.

Eleven-year old Francie is growing up poverty-stricken in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn, New York in 1912. Francie is a bookish child who likes to sit on the fire escape in her tenement flat hidden in the branches of the tree that grows underneath it, reading and listening to the comings and goings of the lively neighbourhood. On a Saturday she visits the library where she is working her way through every single book and has so far only reached authors whose name begins with B. Her mother and aunties are delicate-looking but extremely tough women who have to stretch a tiny family budget. Her father is a lovable and handsome loser who works when he can. Francie and her brother are always hungry. The rhythms and speech patterns of the working class Williamsburg community are brilliantly captured by Betty Smith.

I'll post my final thoughts on this novel when I've finished it but I'd like to read more novels set in early 20th century New York. I'm thinking Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy. I was also intrigued by Book Snob's review of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. As always, I would welcome any other suggestions.


Cath said...

I read this a couple of years ago and thought it was one, if not *the*, best book I read that year. Certainly it's one of my all time favourite books.

Penny said...

I've liked the sound of this book for some time, and your recommendation is good enough for me! So I went over to amazon and ordered a secondhand copy, although I wasn't going to buy any more books this month... You're a bad influence! :o)

Then a thought struck me! 'Jenny, do you have A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?' I yelled up the stairs. 'Yeah!' was the reply! I have now cancelled my order and am about to go to DD's room and wrestle the book off her... Phew!

Mystica said...

I have heard of this but never got around to actually trying to get it. I am sure this is around here in some bookshop.

potterjotter said...

Another one for my reading list. You're going too fast for me! I'll catch up one day - when I'm old and grey.

Anbolyn said...

Definitely read Brooklyn by Toibin. It is an amazing novel.

Penny said...

Nicola, thank you, thank you, thank you! I've started reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and am absolutely LOVING it! I've told John that he must read it, too. :o) This is is not one I'll read aloud to him, as I couldn't do justice to the accents, though I can hear them in my head! (Did I thank you?)

Thank you!

Steph said...

I read this book a long time ago when I was a young girl and I remember really enjoying it. But it's been so long that I no longer really remember any of the details about it, though I did recently re-acquire a copy of it, so I think I'm due for a re-read!

litlove said...

I have been meaning to read this for the longest time! Your review reminds me to bump it a lot nearer the top of the list.

As for early 20th century reads, I've heard good things about Nella Larsson's Passing recently, and I recently read Scott Fitzgerald's early stories and loved them.

Sunday Taylor said...

Have you read "Invisible" by Paul Auster? It is a coming of age novel, set in New York in 1967. (Not exactly the time period you are looking for) It is a very intriguing book, a mystery and a love story, kind of a psychological thriller. I couldn't put it down. I will now read "Brooklyn" based on your recommendation. And of course I should read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" which I somehow missed all these years!

A Bookish Space said...

I have one of the old orange Penguin editions of this, but haven't read it yet because some of the pages have fallen out and it is quite frail. This post is making me think that perhaphs I should brave reading it, as there is something sad about an unread book.

M (@notarevolution) said...

This is one of my all-time favorite books. From the age of 13 (when I read it) through college, it was THE all-time favorite book. It's definitely in my top five. I love when other people enjoy it - so glad you loved it! :)

I can't think of any other books set in early 20th-century New York at the moment. The book blog of Harper Perennial, The Olive Reader, recently did a roundup of favorite New York books, as suggested by the blog's readers. That list is here.

I also personally love Joy in the Morning, which is Smith's other well-known book. (She wrote two more. I've read both, but didn't find them as magical, or unfortunately, as well-written.) That book is sometimes described as a "sequel" to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, though the characters, plot, and storytelling is different.

Mae said...

I think I'm already enraptured by this book simply because there's a child who's attempting to read the library.

I think Paul Auster actually have a book called The Brooklyn Follies. I'm assuming that's set in Brooklyn?!!

Katherine said...

This is my #1 all time favorite book in the world :) So glad to see that you are enjoying it. I also really liked "Joy in the Morning"

Anonymous said...

Have you read The Group yet? I think you'd love it.

Carol by Patricia Highsmith is also excellent.

And today I heard of Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything, set in 1960's New York - about the lives of young women in the city.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn blew me away when I was about 13. I haven't read it since, and you have reminded me that I need to. I am so glad that you love it.

LizF said...

I've wanted to read this for years and was very pleased when I found a copy in a charity shop the other week!
One of my favourite books when I was in primary school was called The All of a Kind Family about a large and loving Jewish family in New York at, I think, the turn of the 20th century. I can't remember who it was by and I haven't seen it since but I really loved the portrayal of the family and New York at that period.
I would certainly endorse recommendations for both Brooklyn and The Group - I think you would enjoy them both.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I read this as a kid and loved it! I need to revisit this book and I wonder if I'd like it as much the second time around? I think so! I just loved everything about it.

Anonymous said...

Loooooooove this book, I remember practically eating it up with a spoon as a child. Also AGE OF INNOCENCE is GREAT, highly recommend that sucker.

Barbara C. said...

When I was in my early 20's a baby sitter left "Molly Now" at our house. I read it and loved it and decided to read more by Betty Smith. I found "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and loved it, just loved it!

Vintage Reading said...

Cath, certainly this is a highlight of my reading life. A great book!

Penny, fabulous isn't it? Look forward to your final thoughts.

Mystica, I found my copy in Waterstones, so it's still in print and available. Hope you enjoy it.

potterjotter, move this up to the top of the list!

AnBolyn, I've got my copy right by my bed - should get to it this week!

Steph, like the best novels, I suspect this appeals to both adults and adolescents. I could identify with Francie, but also her mother.

litlove, I adore Fitzgerald's short stories, I've read most of them and a few of Zelda's, too.

Sunday, I've not read Auster although I know he is a highly regarded writer. I'll look out for that book. The Betty Smith is wonderful.

A Bookish Space, I think you would like this book. I do like the old orange and white penguins. Please post about it if your decide to read it.

M, I'm on a mission to track down a copy of Joy in the Morning and thanks for the link. I wish I'd read ATGIB as 13-year old. Glad I've got to it now though!

Mae, I'll look for the Auster. Yes Francie is a bookish child who adores the library. Less so as she gets older but she has a passion for learning throughout her life.

Katherine, I don't want to leave Betty Smith's world, so I'm going to find a copy of Joy in the Morning. I love that ATGIB is the favourite book of so many bloggers and readers!

booksnob, oh I do wish I'd discovered ATGIB at 13! I've seen the reviews of The Group and I do want to read it. Thanks for the recommendations.

Lizf, I have a copy of Brooklyn by my bed ready to start this week. The book you mentioned about the Jewish family sounds familiar to me. I wonder if I have read it! Do let me know how you liked ATGIB.

Coffee, I found that I empathised with Francie and also with her mother and the sacrifices she made. I loved her mother's feisty sisters, too. Sissy was a hoot! A great book.

Booksaremyboyfriends, yes, read and loved The Age of Innocence although not as much as The House of Mirth. Must read more Wharton.

Barbara C, it is a fabulous novel, Despite the terrible poverty, the dialogue and humour is wonderful. I'm going to find a copy of Joy in the Morning, must read more Smith!

Karen K. said...

Not set in Brooklyn but another great Wharton novel is House of Mirth, possibly my favorite of her novels. It is set in New York but I don't think it's in Brooklyn. I do prefer it to Age of Innocence which I find terribly slow. The Custom of the Country is pretty good but I sort of consider it in Wharton's second tier.

I agree with Liz F., I read and reread the All of a Kind Family series when I was a child, I just loved those stories. Naturally I've forgotten the author's name.

I've also read several by Cather but I don't know anything about My Mortal Enemy! The title intrigues me.

Vintage Reading said...

I have read The House of Mirth and it's my absolute favourite Wharton.

My Mortal Enemy is (I think) the only Cather novel set in New York. It's a novella and a quick read - quite dark - but brilliant.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I totally loved this book the 3x I read it.

Anonymous said...

I was so touched by "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" when I first read it in high school 40 years ago. Since then I have reread it so many times I've lost count. When I want to treat myself, I open up my worn copy and
get lost in Francie's Williamsburg.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm Beth from Minnesota.

I grew up in the 1970's, and have read A Tree Grows in Brookly, Rona Jaffe's "The Best of Everything", Mary McCarthy's The Group, etc.
They are all excellent books. I loved all of them.

I recommend "Kitty Foyle" by Christopher Morley. It takes place between WWI and WWI among an Irish American working class girl in Philadelphia who falls in love with a rich, old-family-money type. It's asesome.