Brooklyn opens on a summer afternoon in Enniscorthy, Ireland. Eilis Lacey sits in her room, working on her homework for her bookkeeping course. She is studying to become a bookkeeper like her older sister Rose, who passes under Eilis’s window and into the house on her way home from work. Rose pauses to refresh her makeup and greet her mother and sister, exchanging good-natured jabs and leaving money for Eilis to go to the movies later that night. In spite of professing herself to be starving, she is soon out the door again to go golfing with friends, leaving her mother and sister to take tea alone together.
Later, as Eilis and her mother wash the dishes, they are interrupted by an anxious girl named Mary, who works for Miss Kelly’s grocery shop. She tells Eilis that Miss Kelly wants to see her, though she does not know the reason. Curious, and with little else to do, Eilis makes the trip to Miss Kelly’s apartment. Miss Kelly explains that she needs another girl to tend the counter on Sunday mornings, and that because she has heard that Eilis has a good head for numbers, she wants to offer Eilis the job. Throughout the conversation, Miss Kelly is haughty and condescending, assuming that Eilis will be eager to take the job, and remarking on her lack of other options. Eilis seems more amused than hurt by the older woman’s rudeness, and ultimately decides that she does need the income. She accepts the position, promising to return for training the following day. On her way home, she stops at the house of her best friend, Nancy Byrne. Their other friend, Annette O’Brien, is also there. Nancy obviously has some news to share, so the three girls take a walk away from the house, out of earshot of Nancy’s mother. Nancy gushes that she danced the last four dances with George Sheridan at the Athenaeum on Sunday night. Nancy begs Eilis to come with her to the Athenaeum that week, as Annette can’t go. Eilis reluctantly agrees.
For the next two days, Eilis spends hours at Miss Kelly’s shop, learning each item, its price, and whether it is often sold on Sundays. Miss Kelly is both disorganized and exacting, insisting that Eilis learn each item and its price by heart, without writing anything down. She instructs Eilis to leave the children and the men to Mary, as Mary supposedly has a spotty memory, and cannot be trusted with the more complicated grocery orders of the women. Eilis notices that Miss Kelly’s manner varies with the customers, clipped and rude with some, and warm and genial with others. She notes that her boss is most friendly with those who can afford have an account at the shop.
Sunday morning, she is up bright and early to attend 7 o’clock mass with Mary and Miss Kelly. They open the shop immediately after, and face the first rush of customers after 9 o’clock mass. Eilis is incredulous at Miss Kelly’s blatant favoritism of her more affluent customers. Miss Kelly allows them to be served first, even when there is a line, and offers them fresh bread and tomatoes, which she insists she does not have when other customers ask. Eilis performs well, but by the end of her shift, she is tired and hungry, as Miss Kelly had not allowed them to eat breakfast or lunch or even take a break.
Eilis worries that her sister Rose might be displeased by her working for Miss Kelly. Rose, with her bookkeeping job, is the breadwinner of their family, supporting her mother and sister after her brothers left for better opportunities in England. Even without a husband, she supports her mother and sister, and manages to look even more stylish than her married friends while doing it. Eilis wants to follow in her sister’s footsteps, but she knows that the reality is that there is “no work for anyone in Enniscorthy,” let alone another lucrative bookkeeping job. But Rose voices no objections, and Eilis, Rose, and their mother talk about the new job and make fun of Miss Kelly all through dinner.
Later that evening, Eilis goes to Nancy’s house to get ready for the dance at the Athenaeum. Eilis dresses plainly, but Nancy goes to great lengths to impress George Sheridan, with a hairstyle fresh from the salon, a new dress, and carefully applied make-up. She is evidently nervous, and Eilis is not surprised, remembering how Nancy had been abruptly dumped by her last boyfriend in favor of another girl, whom he soon after married. Eilis also notes that George Sheridan’s family owns a thriving shop which he stands to inherit, while Nancy herself works the counter of a butcher shop, and that dating him would be like “a dream” to her.
When they arrive at the Athenaeum, Nancy is disappointed to find that George is not there. For a time, they entertain each other, joking and laughing, until they finally spot George and his friends entering the room. There are a few women with them, and Nancy, distraught, tries to leave, but Eilis urges her to wait. George soon spots Nancy, and asks her to dance. Eilis, without a partner, intends to leave when the dance ends, but George asks to buy lemonades for both her and Nancy. At the bar, she is introduced to Jim Farrell, George’s friend whose family owns a local pub. He is unfriendly, disdaining to talk to Eilis even when they are left alone together at the bar during the next set. Indignant, she leaves as soon as the song is over. At home, she tells her mother and sister about Jim’s rudeness, and wonders whether Jim thinks George is too good for Nancy. Her mother remarks that George is lucky to date a girl as beautiful as Nancy, and that the shopkeepers in town have no reason to think themselves so much better than their neighbors.
Throughout the week, Miss Kelly calls Eilis in whenever she needs an extra hand, sending her home with a few shillings and some stale bread. Eilis’s mother is insulted, and urges Eilis to claim to be busy the next time Miss Kelly sends for her. But ultimately, it is clear that Eilis needs the job, and her mother uses the bread to make stuffing for their dinner.
Soon after, Rose invites an American priest, Father Flood, to dinner. He met Rose while golfing, but had known their parents for many years. At dinner, they talk about Eilis’s job at Miss Kelly’s, and he expresses surprise at her low wages. He tells her that there is ample bookkeeping work for a smart, hard-working girl like Eilis in Brooklyn, near his parish. Eilis is shocked at the suggestion, and as her mother and sister remain silent, she realizes that they have already approved the idea. She is overwhelmed, and wishes she had not told her sister about her humiliating treatment at Miss Kelly’s. But over the course of a few days, she reconsiders, thinking about how she has heard that there is more opportunity in America than even in England. When Father Flood sends a letter from Brooklyn about an opening at a large shop, where Eilis would have good prospects for promotion, it is all but decided that she will go to America. Rose quickly makes all the arrangements for Eilis to travel to New York, filling out immigration forms, arranging for a medical examination, securing character references, and completing a slew of other paperwork. Father Flood sends a letter declaring his sponsorship of Eilis and guaranteeing her financial welfare, as well as an official employment offer from Bartocci & Company. Eilis’s brothers send money to pay for her ticket, and Rose gives her money to live on until she can support herself.
Eilis decides to give Miss Kelly notice of her departure. She tells Miss Kelly she will be leaving in a month’s time, and explains that she can still work each Sunday until then. Miss Kelly feigns congratulations, but spitefully asserts that she will not be needing Eilis anymore. Eilis is disappointed, explaining that she had hoped to continue working, but Miss Kelly insists that she would just be a distraction.
Eilis begins to understand how much her life is about to change. She realizes that she will not find a local job and work until she marries and has children. She realizes she will not spend her life with the same people she has always known, in the place where she has grown up. She attempts to quiet her anxiety by focusing on the preparations for her trip—the doctor’s appointments, the new clothes, the ticket arriving in the mail. But the worry is hard to escape, both for her and her family. Eilis is shaken when her mother nearly breaks into tears while talking to a neighbor about the upcoming journey.
Soon after, she realizes the consequences that her leaving will have for Rose. Their mother’s age, loneliness, and meager pension would make it near impossible for Rose to leave her, and this, in turn, would make it impossible for Rose to marry. Eilis sees that Rose is making this sacrifice for Eilis’s sake, and she wants to tell her that she would gladly change places, and let her outgoing, adventurous sister go to America instead. But Eilis cannot find a way to talk to Rose, or even guess at her motives. She determines, at least, not to add to their sadness, and to affect excitement for the opportunity before her.
On the day of her departure, Rose accompanies Eilis to Dublin, and they eat lunch together before Eilis departs for Liverpool. Her brother, Jack, meets her there. Jack is a reserved man, but he has affection for his young sister. He takes her to lunch, where she asks him about his life since he moved to England. He explains that he was deeply homesick for the first few months, and wished he could return home, but he soon got used to England. He liked his work and was respected by his boss, and he had met an English girl. Eilis, excited at this news, demands his girlfriend’s name and teases him for taking her to the “flea pits” to go dancing. He reddens at her teasing, but it is clear that he is happy. He sees her onto the ship with her luggage.
She finds her berth to be very small, especially when Georgina, her berth mate, blusters into the room with her huge trunk. Though irritated by the ordeal of maneuvering her heavy trunk, Georgina soon proves friendly. She invites Eilis on deck with her to see the city as they set off from shore. It is clear that she is no stranger to sea voyages, and she offers to show Eilis around, but Eilis declines. When Eilis goes to the dining room soon after, she notices Georgina is not there, and that most of the tables in the dining room are empty, which she finds curious. Upon returning to her room and preparing for bed, she finds the shared bathroom locked from the other side. She needs to relieve herself, but no one answers when she knocks on the door to the bathroom or the cabin next door. Growing desperate, she is forced to urinate in a cleaning bucket that she finds in an alcove in the corridor. After this ordeal is over, and she is thoroughly exhausted by her first day of travel, goes to bed.
She awakes in the middle of the night to a horrible wave of nausea. She can hardly stop herself from vomiting all over the room as she rushes to the bathroom, but she finds the door still locked. She hears retching on the other side, and she finally realizes why it had been locked all along. She is furious, and bangs violently on the door. But there is no response, and so she goes into the hallway, desperate to find another bathroom. She vomits all over the hallway, roiling with nausea. Having mostly emptied her stomach, she takes some cleaning supplies she finds in the hallway and attempts to clean up her mess. But it only makes it worse, and she is intensely miserable, missing her mother and sister and feeling alone in the world.
When Georgina reappears in the morning, she explains what happened, and apologizes for the mess. Georgina is unfazed, and even sympathetic towards Eilis. She tells her not to worry about the vomit, assuring her that the whole ship is a mess, and the crew will begin cleaning shortly. She advises her to only drink water for the time being, as the weather is particularly bad, and the seasickness is not likely to wear off until they reach calmer waters. She deals promptly with their rude neighbors, using her nail file to pick the lock. She locks the door on the other side, and wedges her trunk inside the bathroom so that the other door will not open and they will have the bathroom to themselves.
With Georgina’s guidance, Eilis is able to somewhat manage her seasickness for the remaining days, though she never completely recovers. Georgina prepares her for going through immigration. She tells her that with her work permit, she is only likely to be stopped if she appears unhealthy, so she tells her not to cough or act tired. She helps her to pick her clothes so that she looks pretty but not provocative, and does her makeup for her. Eilis is pleased by her appearance, and wishes she could do her makeup herself. She thinks that she might feel safer with makeup on, more confident, but she then wonders whether it would bring a new kind of attention that she does not want to attract.
The first part of the novel introduces one of its major themes: economic mobility. It is the pursuit of economic mobility which drives much of the plot, especially in these early chapters. The novel opens on a town that is all but stagnant. There is no work in Enniscorthy, even for someone smart and motivated like Eilis. Rose provides Eilis with study materials, and tries to leverage her own experience and connections as a bookkeeper to find her a job. But economic mobility is next to impossible, and much of the working class is being pushed out of the community all together. This is certainly true of Eilis's three brothers, who have been forced to leave Ireland for better opportunities in England.
The working class who remain in Enniscorthy experience a sort of fractured family. When talking with her mother and sister, Eilis feels the loss of her brother Jack especially keenly: “She wondered if she was the only one who remembered that Jack, the youngest of her brothers, used to do imitations of the Sunday sermon, the radio sports commentators, the teachers at school and many characters in the town, and they all used to laugh. She did not know if the other two also realized that this was the first time they had laughed at this table since Jack had followed the others to Birmingham. She would have loved to say something about him, but she knew that it would make her mother too sad” (16). She misses her brother, and she recognizes the toll his departure has had on her mother and sister as well. She longs for the time when her family used to be whole, as she expresses in her remembrances of a past Christmas morning: “Only once, years before, had Eilis been to seven o’clock mass and that was on a Christmas morning when her father was alive and the boys were still at home. She remembered that she and her mother had tiptoed out of the house while the others were sleeping, leaving the presents under the tree in the upstairs living room, and coming back just after the boys and Rose and their father had woken and begun to open the packages" (13). For working-class families, this fractured family is the reality of life, and the only way to survive in increasingly difficult economic conditions.
Perhaps most telling is Eilis's experience working for Miss Kelly. Not only is she underpaid, and given only a few hours of work each week, but she sees firsthand the class divisions which are becoming so entrenched in her hometown. Miss Kelly is pompous and vain, pandering to her affluent customers and openly spurning those who are merely working-class. Eilis is shocked to observe that “No one was served in turn. Miss Kelly informed some of her customers, including two who, being friends of Rose, greeted Eilis familiarly, that she had lovely fresh tomatoes. She weighed them herself, seeming to be impressed that Eilis knew these customers, telling others firmly, however, that she had no tomatoes that day, none at all. For favoured customers she openly, almost proudly, produced the fresh bread" (15). Meanwhile, Miss Kelly sends Eilis home with stale bread after her shift, an action that her mother sees as extremely condescending. She exclaims to Eilis, “She must think we’re paupers... What would we do with stale bread? Rose will go mad. Don’t go there the next time she sends for you. Tell her you’re busy” (22). But in spite of her mother's wounded pride, Eilis knows she needs the job, a fact that is highlighted when her mother "made breadcrumbs with the stale bread and roasted stuffed pork" (22).
Eilis has few other options. The only remaining mode of economic mobility available to her is to date and eventually marry someone who is wealthier than her. Her friend Nancy is an illustration of this idea. She begins dating a man named George Sheridan, whose family owns a profitable shop. Everyone is surprised at this development, because although Nancy is beautiful and widely liked, she is not a part of his class. As Eilis so keenly notes, “For Nancy, who worked in Buttle’s Barley-Fed Bacon behind the counter, going out with George Sheridan was a dream that she did not wish to wake from” (18). But this option is at least symbolically wiped out in her interaction with Jim Farrell. When Jim and Eilis are left alone, he disdains to even begin a conversation with her, let alone ask her to dance.
Rose can read these signs, and she forms an entirely new plan: sending Eilis to America. Unlike her brothers, Eilis had never dreamed of leaving Enniscorthy. She had always thought that "she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbours, the same routines in the same streets. She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children" (29). Eilis believes that she will be content this way, that this is the life she is meant to lead. She thinks that "the wrong sister was leaving," and that her sister is far better suited for such an adventure (32). Already she feels that her sense of identity, which is so tied up with her community, will have to undergo some kind of change, one she is not sure she wants to make.
But she decides to make these changes for at least one reason: Eilis idolizes her sister. She talks about how she is "proud of her sister," and describes her in glowing terms. She tries to follow in Rose's footsteps, pursuing the same profession as Rose, and constantly seeking her approval. She wants to be like her sister, and she believes that in taking on the challenge of a new life in America, she is doing exactly as Rose would do. She begins to channel her sister almost as soon as she leaves her company. When speaking to a porter before boarding the ship, “she found herself thanking him in a tone that Rose might have used, a tone warm and private but also slightly distant though not shy either, a tone used by a woman in full possession of herself" (34). The idea of Eilis imitating Rose will become a motif throughout the novel.