Eilis boards in a house owned by an Irish woman named Mrs. Kehoe. Mrs. Kehoe is something of a mother figure to her boarders, who are all young women, many of them Irish immigrants. The girls observe her strict house rules and follow her routine. She dominates the dinner conversation, talking readily of clothes, shoes, and the latest fashions. But she is not unkind, and she takes a liking to the quiet, well-behaved Eilis almost immediately.
Eilis soon gets to know the other boarders. Miss McAdam, an older woman from Belfast, is prim and aloof, hardly ever speaking except to complain about the younger girls or make a sour comment. Sheila Heffernan, an older woman from Skerries, is much the same, constantly bickering with the younger girls about making too much noise at night. The younger boarders, Patty McGuire and Diana Montini, are American-born Irish girls, with American accents and American habits. They are outgoing and lively, spending every weekend out at places where they are likely to meet men, and antagonizing their older neighbors. The last is Miss Keegan, a woman from Galway who mostly keeps to herself.
Even as Eilis grows used to her new neighbors and surroundings, she cannot help but notice all the ways that Brooklyn is different from home. Basic foods, like bread and butter, do not taste the same, and the tap water makes her hair frizz when she washes it. Every day is overwhelming, with a barrage of new experiences which occupy her mind long after she lays down to sleep at night.
Her first day at Bartocci’s begins with an interview with Miss Elisabetta Bartocci, the owner’s daughter. Miss Bartocci explains that as Brooklyn is constantly changing with the steady influx of immigrants, Bartocci’s serves people of every race and background, and treats them all equally. She tells Eilis that she must treat each customer like “a new friend” and stresses that maintaining a positive attitude and a friendly manner is of the utmost importance. She introduces Eilis to her supervisor, Miss Fortini, and goes over the basic schedule. She notes that Bartocci’s encourages employees to pursue education, and even pays for part of their tuition. This is exciting news, as Eilis still wants to pursue bookkeeping. All that is left is for Eilis to learn the cash system, and with her penchant for numbers, Eilis learns easily.
The days are busy, and none more so than the “Famous Nylon Sale.” Only Mr. Bartocci himself knows when the sale will occur, so the sale is as much a surprise to Eilis as to the customers. When she comes into work on the day of the sale, she finds the whole store filled with nylon products, most at half price. When the doors open, there is already a line forming outside, and there is a seemingly endless stream of women scrambling to buy nylons. The day is long and exhausting, but not unrewarding. Eilis is able to pick out four pairs of nylons for herself, keeping two as gifts for her mother and sister, and giving one to Mrs. Kehoe. Mrs. Kehoe is delighted, and the other girls in the house beg her to tell them any rumors she might hear about when the next sale is set to happen.
But the excitement soon wears off, especially after Eilis receives her first letters from her mother, sister, and brother. They are hardly remarkable letters, and contain no real news, but they force Eilis to think of home, and of the people she left behind. She feels all at once how alone she is in this unfamiliar city, how unknown by everyone around her. She sleeps fitfully, and dreams about being taken away from her mother, and about flying back home. She almost begins to resent her family for allowing her to leave for America, and imagines the distance that would inevitably grow between them the longer she was away.
For the next two days, she can barely hide her unhappiness, which quickly catches the attention of the supervisor, Miss Fortini. Miss Fortini is kind but firm, warning that this new attitude will not be tolerated for long. She calls Father Flood to help Eilis work through her troubles, and gives her the rest of the day off. Father Flood apologizes for neglecting Eilis, explaining that he had thought she was adjusting very well. He explains that the homesickness she is feeling is normal, and will go away with time. He advises her to keep busy, and offers to pull some strings to enroll her in a bookkeeping course. By dinner time, he returns to Mrs. Kehoe’s house with the news that he has successfully enrolled her at one of the best schools in the city, Brooklyn College, and has even paid her first semester’s tuition.
Though Eilis is skeptical that the bookkeeping course will offer any relief from her homesickness, she attends class each day and studies dutifully. She notices she is one few women, and the only Irish person in her classes. Her favorite class is commercial law, taught by the charismatic Mr. Rosenblum, who makes jokes and uses real-life examples to illustrate the principles they are learning.
As the weather gets colder, Eilis’s mood does seem to improve. She luxuriates in the fact that Americans keep their heat on all night in winter, and happily plans the Christmas presents she will send to her mother, sister, and brothers. Father Flood prevents her from feeling lonely during the holidays by asking her to work at the parish on Christmas, serving dinner to those in need. She, Father Flood, and two middle-aged sisters both known as Miss Murphy organize, cook, and serve about two hundred people, most of them Irish men without families. One man, in particular, reminds Eilis of her father. As more visitors arrive, and some men begin to play fiddles and accordions, she muses that the hall could pass as a parish hall in Ireland. The man who reminds her of her father gets up to sing, and motions for Eilis to accompany him on stage. He holds her hand as he performs an Irish song, and proves himself a very talented singer. Eilis is happy at the end of the night, going over the day in her mind again before she falls asleep.
This section certainly illustrates the frantic pace of Eilis's life in her first few weeks in America. We are introduced to a multitude of new characters with little more than names, and thrown into the chaos of Bartocci's "Famous Nylon Sale" (65) These fast-paced scenes reveal much about Eilis's state of mind in these early days of her time in America.
As soon as the pace settles, Eilis's homesickness sets in. She experiences this as a feeling of being severed from all the people and places she had once used to define herself and give meaning to her life. “She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought" (69-70). Eilis views her former home as a part of her, and alienated from her home, she feels like "nobody" and a "ghost." This section really starts to consider the theme of identity. Eilis clearly believes that one's sense of self is determined as much by environment as by any innate characteristics, which is why the change is so jarring for her.
Eilis begins to have vivid dreams and daydreams of Enniscorthy. While eating at a diner, "snatches of another dream that she had only half remembered when she woke came to her... She was lost so much in the memory of this dream that the waiter behind the counter asked her if she was all right" (71). Moreover, these daydreams begin to disrupt her daily life. At work, “she found that she could, if she did not stop herself, move easily into a sort of trance, thinking over and over of the same things, about everything she had lost, and wondering how she would face going back to the evening meal with the others and the long night alone in a room that had nothing to do with her" (71-72). With these examples, the novel begins a motif of using dreams to talk about memories, to express distance from the past.
Father Flood has a method for alleviating homesickness, one which primarily involves integrating Eilis back into a community, even if it is different than the one she had known. He enrolls her in a bookkeeping course, for example, and asks her to help serve meals at the parish on Christmas. In this latter case, we have many indications that Father Flood's plan is working. As she works, Eilis begins to confuse these American immigrants with the men she had known in Ireland: “they had reminded her of men who sat on the bridge in Enniscorthy or gathered at the seat at Arnold’s Cross or the Louse Bank by the Slaney, or men from the County Home, or men from the town who drank too much" (91-92). She even begins to see a resemblance between these men and her own father and brothers: "by the time she served them and they turned to thank her, they seemed more like her father and his brothers in the way they spoke or smiled, the toughness in their faces softened by shyness, what had appeared stubborn or hard now strangely tender" (92). One man she almost confuses with her father, though she comes to find that the resemblance is only "a trick of the light or something she had completely imagined" (92). In other words, Eilis begins to identify these American Irish people with the people she had known and loved at home. She begins to feel so much more comfortable in this community that she can even imagine it being home. Eilis notes that the parish hall “could have been a parish hall anywhere in Ireland on the night of a concert or a wedding when the young people were all elsewhere dancing or standing at the bar" (93). By reestablishing a connection to the people and places around her, Eilis is able to feel more grounded and comfortable in a new American identity.