A Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Goodreads Rating: 4.22 Stars
489 pages
Perennial Classics
Get it here!

A profoundly moving novel, and an honest and true one. It cuts right to the heart of life … If you miss A Tree Grows in Brooklyn you will deny yourself a rich experience … It is a poignant and deeply understanding story of childhood and family relationships.

The Nolans lived in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn from 1902 until 1919 … Their daughter Francie and their son Neely knew more than their fair share of the privations and sufferings that are the lot of a great city’s poor. Primarily this is Francie’s book. She is a superb feat of characterization, an imaginative, alert, resourceful child. And Francie’s growing up and beginnings of wisdom are the substance of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

– – – – –

4Penguins
Quick Reasons: lyrical, moving prose; a lot of long-winded, abstract, and completely realistic occurrences; a coming-of-age story that doesn’t sugar-coat or shy away from the difficult realities; intriguing writing, not a lot of dialogue

“I know that’s what people say– you’ll get over it. I’d say it, too. But I know it’s not true. Oh, youll be happy again, never fear. But you won’t forget. Every time you fall in love it will be because something in the man reminds you of him.”

Given this is a classic, and is such an integral read to SO MANY, this review will not be quite the same as all my others. First things first: this book is huge. And I don’t mean huge in number of pages; I mean huge in topics covered, in character growths and losses, in all the life featured throughout—and all the lessons. This book is huge with heart, and personality, and things to take away with you once you’ve closed the final page. There is a lot of growing happening in this read…and not all of it will be the characters’ alone. A lot of it, you might find, is your own.

There is a moving, lyrical quality to the prose that makes this both profound and at times rather slow-moving. So much happens in these pages…but at the same time, it sometimes felt as if no matter how much I read, I wasn’t getting anywhere. I think most of this is due to the sheer heft of the subject matter—a coming-of-age so heavy as this can’t always be filled with adventure and sudden bursts of wisdom. Growth like this takes time—and must be tread through at a pace suitable to the distance traveled.

“Someday you’ll remember what I said and you’ll thank me for it.”

Francie wished adults would stop telling her that. Already the load of thanks in the future was weighing her down. She figured she’d have to spend the best years of her womanhood hunting up people to tell them that they were right and to thank them.

Despite the pacing, the prose is gorgeous—melodic and wholly insightful, traversing readers of all ages, pushing them to think outside the boxes we shove ourselves so comfortably into. There are some hard things to read in this book. There are moments that will make you squirm, make you hurt, make you angry. Every emotion, each of the five senses, are touched upon throughout, drawing readers not only into the story, but into the lives of the characters.

Francie is both intriguing and endearing. Katie, her mom, is both easy to side with and yet often infuriating in turn. Each character is woven into a realistic facsimile of family and familial relationships—it is obvious from the read that Betty Smith was insightful in regards to people and their motivations.

There are, however, some things sensitive readers ought to be aware of—subjects like molestation, murder, assault, racism, adultery all play a role in this story. While these are handled with sensitivity and maturity, they are also intense and at times uncomfortable, so readers triggered by these things should take care while reading.

She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father stumbling home drunk. She was all of these things and of something more.

I enjoyed reading this, and seeing the world as it was in the early 1900s. Francie’s coming-of-age is laden with emotional turmoil, self-discovery, and growth. I recommend to lovers of historical fiction and lyrical prose. While I wouldn’t call this one of my favorite classics, I think it’s still an enlightening and important read.

8 thoughts on “A Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

  1. Pingback: Sunday Post (#6) – betwixt-the-pages

  2. Pingback: Loved and Loathed (February 2016) – betwixt-the-pages

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