Slightly Underwhelmed by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

14891So I finally made it through the first book I’ve planned to read for my 10 Books of Summer challenge (hosted by Cathy of 746books). It also counts towards my Classics Club challenge and my participation in The Estella Project. It is too bad that I find myself not having much to say about the book.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that classic American coming-of-age story, came with high praises. On paper, it has lots of things I enjoy in a book: it is set in the early twentieth century and focuses on one family, more specifically, Francie Nolan, the oldest child of a poor working-class family living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

I expected to be swept away. I started to read and… nothing happened. It was odd. I don’t need a lot of action in the books I read. In fact, I prefer slow stories with attention to detail. I don’t think I’ve ever complained about a book having too many details. But that is exactly what bothered me here and why it sometimes felt like a chore to read the book. Which is really too bad, because there were parts that were beautifully written and very touching, like the description of Francie buying some penny candy, borrowing a book from the library, and then making herself comfortable on the fire escape to enjoy an afternoon of reading. (Sounds like a wonderful way to spend the day, doesn’t it? Well, aside from the poverty….)

I did enjoy reading about all the strong female characters in this story. From Francie’s grandmother, to her aunts and her mother Katie, to Francie herself, the women have strong personalities, know what they want, and are undaunted by their setbacks. “They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices. But they were made out of thing invisible steel.” (p. 69)

I particularly liked how Francie’s grandmother overcame her own bitter disappointment and worked to give her children a better life. Her advice to Katie after the birth of Francie, when Katie realizes that her husband won’t be a reliable provider, is touching and timeless: love your husband the way he is, teach your child the importance of education, and save your money for a rainy day.

Francie is a very likeable character. She is curious, determined, and imaginative. I could see how the events around her influenced her and helped her develop into a smart and loyal person. Yet despite everything I got to know about her, I can’t say that I ever felt particularly close to her.

Ironically, seeing how I complained earlier about the book moving very slowly, I felt that the ending was wrapped rather too quickly. After reading about practically every meal that Francie ever ate, it was a bit jarring to have her fall in love, be disappointed, and move to Michigan in the span of the final 50 pages. It felt rushed and so unlike the rest of the story.

Overall, I’m glad I read the book, but I don’t think I’ll ever read it again.

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8 comments

  1. […] I’ve been doing a lot of comfort reading over the past few months. But Ann Petry’s The Street is not a comfort read. It is heart-breaking and brutally honest and offers no escape or ease. It is a book that needs to be read, because even though it was originally published in 1946, it is still very relevant. The fact that, aside from a few historical references, the story could be taking place now, 70 years later, speaks for itself. It is a shame, then, that I stumbled across this book only by accident, when I searched for classics written by women last year. This book deserves a wider audience today. It deserves to stand next to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. […]

  2. Interesting response. I would have to re-read to see how my reactions compare, though I remember being very absorbed and caught up in the descriptions of Frankie’s world.

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