Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn - Betty Smith

Rating : 10/10


A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is one of those classics that everyone ought to read. The coming of age story of Francie Nolan and her family who lived in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn in the 1900s, this book is inspired by author Betty Smith's own childhood. Which is very evident when you read the book, because, one of the most stunning things about this book is its innate realism and honesty.

This is an epic tale of a poor family and the trials and tribulations they go through as they face life. There is room for a lot of tragedy, but the strong undercurrent of hope, hard work and optimism is unmistakable. Betty Smith creates a fantastic world, so real, so intricate and so unforgettable. Indeed, 50 pages into this long book and you're already feeling part of the Nolan family and you're eager to see how they fight their way through life. 

To put it simply, Betty Smith writes like a dream. She has a knack of analyzing emotional angles and relationships in such deceptively easy, simple words. I would read just about anything she writes, not just because of her witty style, but because of her ability to include just enough detail to fascinate the reader yet not create an overload of unnecessary information. Her take on societal norms and idiosyncrasies are wonderful and seem so natural and never forced. 

The best part about this classic is definitely its characters and their development. It is a remarkable achievement to create and chronicle some of the most vivid, memorable characters ever. Francie, her brother Neeley, father Johnnie Nolan, mother Katie and two aunts Sissy and Evy soon seem like people you know very well and you begin to care about them so much. Francie especially is a pleasure to read, though I loved the strong, almost unshakable will of her mother Katie and her loving yet flawed father Johnnie. After all, isn't that the true greatness of a book? When the reader is enthralled, captivated and pulled into a world whose inhabitants and environment they care about.

The book has a lot of lessons to teach, but does so in an elegant, matter of fact way without being preachy. Poverty is never easy and Betty Smith doesn't romanticise poverty, she humanises it through her unforgettable characters. Sample this quote:

'The lady talked as Francie backed awkwardly to her seat. She said: 'You've all seen an example of the true Christmas spirit. Little Mary is a very rich little girl and received many beautiful dolls for Christmas. But she was not selfish. She wanted to make some poor little Mary, who is not as fortunate as herself, happy. So she gave the doll to that poor little girl who is named Mary, too.'

Francie's eyes smarted with hot tears. 'Why can't they,' she thought bitterly, 'just give away the doll away without saying I am poor and she is rich? Why couldn't they just give it away without all the talking about it?''

Smith takes you on a trip down memory lane because a lot of things that Francie and her family go through along the years are things we all know. She makes you so involved with the characters that you shed tears for them. Regardless of the immense tragedies that you read about in this book, you come away with a sense of hope, not loss. 

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is exactly what every good book ought to be: engaging, beautiful, emotional and unforgettable. It is also the kind of book you will go back to all the time, because it has something to share with you at every point of your life. Don't deny yourself the wonderful journey that this book offers!


Shweta said...

I am so glad u loved this one. I keep hand selling this books to friends who love reading..:) Absolutely wonderful book , isn't it ?

Booksnyc said...

I was just speaking about this book with a friend last night - she was urging me to read it! It is definitely on my TBR - recently picked up a used copy. Glad you liked it so much!

JoAnn said...

This was a perfect 10/10 for me, too. Excellent review!

Priya Parmar said...

so good. when i am in nyc and i cross delancy st i think of francie nolan.

Kim said...

Yes, yes, of my favorites!

Heather G. said...

I've heard so many great things about this one. it's on my huge pile at home!

Kals said...

Shweta - Totally worth hand-selling this book :) It was such a wonderful read!

Booksync - Thanks :) It will definitely be on my list of all-time brilliant books. I hope you get to reading it soon and enjoy it as much as I did!

JoAnn - Thanks! And yeah, I think this book is as close to perfection as possible.

Priya - Aww..Francie is absolutely unforgettable. I could relate to her in so many ways!

Kim - And mine too :)

Heather - This is as good as it is hyped to be :)

Anonymous said... read this one. It sounds like a really great book.

A friend has always tried to get me to read this one, but somehow I got put off by the title, don't know why.

Must look beyond the title :)

Anonymous said... read this one. It sounds like a really great book.

A friend has always tried to get me to read this one, but somehow I got put off by the title, don't know why.

Must look beyond the title :)

Kals said...

Nishita - This is definitely a great book to read and I'm pretty sure you'll like it. I love the title, actually. It fits in so well with the book's message =)

Vaishnavi said...

Alright I need to pick up this book! I love books with such themes and this one seems awesome..

Kals said...

I'm pretty sure you'll love this book! =)

Nita said...

I'm so glad I found your blog. I love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn so much that I surf the Internet once in a while to read what others have to say about it. (And, yes, that's how I got to your blog!)

I am a Goodreads member and it was on one of the lists there that I discovered A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Since then, I have been following those lists to find the next gem. Now I'll also look at your blog for recommendations.

I am currently reading Sense and Sensibility, the only Austen novel I haven't read yet.

Cheers to you and happy reading!


Kals said...

Thanks, Nita and happy reading to you too! I'm glad you found my blog :) A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is one of the most memorable books I've read. It's such a beautiful, emotional classic!

I hope you enjoy Sense and Sensibility too! The movie version is great as well.

KateW said...

I think it's more than a good book - I think it is one of the enduring MASTERPIECES of world literature.

I'm not alone in this opinion. For someone who puts "Tree" right up with Moby Dick and Huck Finn (wow!!), see Dan Schneider's review at Cosmoetica -

A 1999 NY Times review (also by a man, Robert Cornfield) is very positive as well: “The Tree Still Grows in Brooklyn” (1999)

The book has gotten a bad rap as nothing more than a "girl's book" or a "young adult book" or an "Oprah book." Hogwash! Yes, it is accessible to young adult readers, but so what? So are lots of other great books - "Scarlett Letter," "Huck Finn," etc. And - like all great literature - "Tree" will be a different book, depending on what stage YOU are in your life. If you read it in high school, read it again and be AMAZED at what you missed. I read it in my 40s and then again recently at age 60 - and found new passages and characters to think about and admire.

As for the idea that it's a female-only book - well.... it was so popular with GIs in World War II that a special "Armed Services" edition was printed to fit into soldiers' packs. And it's been translated into MANY languages - it can't ONLY be women around the world who are reading it.

Finally, it's a TERRIFIC book group book. My group thanked me for having them read/reread it.


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