Sunday, December 31, 2017

Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I opined to my wife that it would be impossible to pick a favorite fiction book, because there are so many genres and so many great works. She disagreed. "I have an all-time favorite novel: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". I was surprised at her certainty and set out to read the book.

Francie Nolan is the main character of this novel that takes place in the years before the US entered  World War I. Francie is 11 years old when the book opens, and her precocious observations and sharp insights about Brooklyn and its people propel the book. She is both nostalgic and unsympathetic. As she grows older and sees more how the world works, she matures before your eyes. She is 16 at the end of the book, and you realize you've grown up with her.

The book is populated with her first-generation American family: a hard working mother, a lovable lout of a father, and a rambunctious younger brother. She has two aunts that add a lot of zest in her life. Everyone is poor in her part of Brooklyn, yet she has rich experiences because of her keen eye and imagination. So many vivid scenes from this book: her grandmother getting swindled out of her savings, her father's constant singing, getting vaccinated for school, the time she and her brother caught a large Christmas tree for the holidays.

The book brims with universal emotion and experiences. She feels loneliness as she longs for someone to understand her. She rebels against her mother as she starts to spread her wings. She takes bold steps to further herself and her family and you cheer. There is deceit and heartbreak, humor and truth, life and death.

"I'm in awe of this book," I told my wife, when I finished. It's a book about "what it means to be human", writes Anna Quindlen in the introduction of my edition. By the end, I could only wipe away my tears and agree.