Winters in New York are brutally cold, Eilis learns in January—colder than any she had experienced at home.
Miss Keegan moves out suddenly, vacating the best room in the house. It is the largest and the warmest, with sumptuous decorations and its own private entrance. Mrs. Kehoe offers Eilis the room, obviously viewing this act as a great favor. But Eilis questions her motives, especially given that she is the newest boarder in the house, and least entitled to the room. She is displeased by the thought that the other boarders will believe that she asked for this new arrangement, conspiring with Mrs. Kehoe behind their backs. She does not want either the resentment of her fellow boarders or any sense of obligation to Mrs. Kehoe. Still, she has little choice but to accept the room, though she does so with a coldness that ruffles Mrs. Kehoe.The move is performed with great secrecy, but it is soon noticed by the other boarders. Miss McAdams tells Eilis that, in truth, no one else had ever wanted the room, and Mrs. Kehoe had duped her. Miss Keegan had moved out, apparently, because she had been twice followed home by a man who had exposed himself to her. She had moved out of fear for her safety, and none of the other girls could be convinced to take her room upon her departure. Eilis doubts the truth of this story, thinking that Miss McAdams likely intends to scare her and get some petty revenge on her for taking the best room. But she has no true friend among the boarders, and she can hardly parse out the true motives of Mrs. Kehoe, Miss McAdams, and the other girls.
This becomes quite a dilemma when Father Flood announces the beginning of Friday night dances in the parish hall. The boarders are divided into two factions: Patty and Diana, who want Eilis to come to a restaurant with them before the dance, and Sheila and Miss McAdams, who insist that the restaurant is really a saloon, and who urge Eilis to come straight to the dance from Mrs. Kehoe’s house with them instead. Eilis ultimately decides to go with Sheila and Miss McAdams, but she soon regrets it. The two women spend the whole night griping about Patty and Diana, who are glamorous and stylish in their new clothes, and surrounded by other young people, including young men. Though they claim to be scandalized by the young women’s indecent behavior, Eilis can tell they are simply jealous, and refuses to contribute to their nasty gossip. She even remarks on how handsome Diana’s partner is, and what a great dancer he is. This infuriates Miss McAdams and Sheila, who stop speaking to her altogether, but Eilis could not care less, and she vows to herself never to go to another dance with them.
At Bartocci’s on Monday, there is big news. The store will start selling stockings for black women, who are increasingly moving to Brooklyn. Miss Fortini chooses Eilis and Miss Delano to work the counter where these items will be sold. Miss Delano is displeased by the new assignment, and resentful that she had been singled out for the job, but Eilis is open-minded. She marvels at the sophistication of the black woman, their perfectly manicured clothes and hair. Still, there is much tension in the store with each of these transactions. The black women almost never come alone, and they are stiffly polite with Eilis and Miss Delano. The other salesgirls can hardly hide their ogling, and the entire store is quiet and watchful until the customers leave. Eilis is kind to these women, and seems far less prejudiced than her coworkers, but even she wishes that she was assigned to another counter, where she could avoid these awkward encounters.
After work, Eilis is still attending her bookkeeping courses, and even enjoying them. She is enthralled by the lectures of Mr. Rosenblum, but worries about the exam for his class. One night after class, she summons all her courage and approaches him to ask him what additional books she should buy in order to study. He is brusque in manner, but he seems to take a genuine interest in her, asking if she is the only Irish student in the class, and if she thinks he is moving too quickly through the material. He recommends a few books on corporate law, and tells her where to find them.
Later in the week, the rest of the boarders confront Eilis about the rumors that Bartocci’s is serving black customers. Miss McAdam makes a particularly racist remark about how she must be exposed to “all sorts of germs” in the store, clearly implying that these “germs” are due to the presence of the black customers. Eilis is clearly uncomfortable, and says nothing while Mrs. Kehoe weakly defends the admirable service of black people in the war. But Miss McAdams venomously pursues the point, saying that she would never serve a black person. Patty chimes in her agreement. Eilis points out that her black customers are nice, and always dress beautifully. When Sheila remarks that she will avoid Bartocci’s from now on, Eilis seems to reach a breaking point. She snaps at Sheila, sarcastically lamenting the loss of such a stylish customer, with her “fussy old cardigans” and runs in her stockings. Patty shrieks with laughter, and it is clear that Miss McAdam and Sheila will not soon forget this slight.
When Eilis finally goes to pick up her schoolbooks, the store’s owner recognizes the handwriting on her list as Joshua Rosenblum’s, and remarks on his brilliance. But he soon becomes agitated, asking her if she can believe that the Germans would want to kill a man like him. Eilis is confused, so he explains that the Germans had killed all of Rosenblum’s family during the Holocaust. Eilis does not seem to recognize this word, nor does she seem familiar with the events he is referencing. But the man will not speak any more about it, and she leaves the shop unsettled and confused.
Mrs. Kehoe finally fills Eilis’s old room with a new boarder, Dolores Grace. The other girls instantly dislike her, especially because she works as a “scrubber,” cleaning homes. Eilis is annoyed by their snobbery, and wonders if they thought so little of her in her job as a salesgirl. But when Mrs. Kehoe asks Eilis to take Dolores to the dance, she soon dislikes the new boarder too. Dolores dresses garishly and chatters incessantly. She calls the other boarders “bitches” and talks about how she would “love a fella.” Eilis can hardly keep her patience as they walk to the dance together. She takes her first opportunity to escape Dolores’s company by going to greet Patty. Patty fixes Eilis’s hair and does her makeup for her in the bathroom, and Eilis is pleased by her new look. One of Patty’s friends teaches Eilis the steps of the dance, and though she is not a great dancer, she finds herself having a good time.
She is soon approached by a young man, who asks her to dance. His introduces himself as Tony, and he has an easy confidence and an infectious smile that Eilis cannot help but like. Though Eilis initially intends to dance with him for only one or two dances, she finds herself dancing with him until the very end of the night, through both romantic slow dances and upbeat line dances. He is a good dancer, but never lets himself upstage her, which she finds endearing. Though he makes his interest clear, he is never too forward, and she quickly feels comfortable around him. When he offers to walk her home, sweet and eager, she readily accepts, both grateful to avoid Dolores and happy to be in his company. He admits to her, on the walk home, that he is not Irish, but Italian, and that he was born in Brooklyn. He had gone to the dance at the Irish parish simply to see what it was like, and when he had spotted Eilis, he had instantly liked her. She teases him about this, but his sweet earnestness clearly charms her. He asks if he can bring her to the dance the next week, and she readily agrees.
Eilis’s anticipation of seeing Tony the next week is so high that she almost feels like she is looking forward to a trip home. Her new relationship with Tony even helps to smooth things over with the other boarders, who are all so curious about Tony that they forget their petty dramas. Even Mrs. Kehoe is curious about him, and when he comes to pick up Eilis, she grills him on his name, profession, and address. Amused by her interrogation, he lets her believe he is a nice Irish boy named Tony McGrath, but he opens up to Eilis about his real background. He tells her that his full name is Antonio Giuseppe Fiorello, that he is a plumber, and that he lives at home with his parents and three younger brothers. She is charmed again by his cheerfulness, his sense of humor, and his openness, and she gradually opens up to him, too.
Though initially she limits their relationship to the weekends, she soon tells him about her bookkeeping course, and allows him to walk her home after class. He pouts playfully about her keeping her studies a secret, and admits that his only secret is that he has always liked Irish girls. She explains that the classes were a way to keep busy, to keep from becoming too homesick and to be happy. He asks her seriously if he makes her happy, and she admits truthfully that he does, and begins babbling about her coursework to stave off any further conversation on the subject. She tells him, in the course of this rambling, about her experience with the bookstore owner, and he becomes grave and silent. He is as serious as Eilis has ever seen him for the rest of the night. This thoughtful side to him, though still warm and sincere, surprises and somewhat frightens her, forcing her to consider the growing seriousness of their relationship. They soon establish a pattern where Tony walks her home from class on Thursdays, picks her up for the dance on Fridays, and takes her to the movies on Saturdays. He amuses her with stories about his work, the people who are stingy and those who are generous. She loves dancing with him and she loves kissing him, but she especially loves how he never pressures her into anything more than she is comfortable doing.
She finally tells her sister about him in a private letter to her office. When Father Flood stops the couple to chat at the next dance, she is sure that Rose sent him to size Tony up. But Tony’s easy manners and respectfulness soon win over the priest, and Eilis is proud of the good impression he makes. Rose trusts Father Flood, but cautions Eilis against having any serious relationship too soon.
But things with Tony are becoming serious. He begins to tell her that he loves her, and, unsure of her own feelings, she gives him no response. One day, he offhandedly says that their kids will be Dodgers fans, like him, and Eilis is terrified by the idea that he imagines marriage and children so near in their future. She must confront the idea that such a possibility would mean a whole life in New York, a life away from Ireland. She begins to pull away from him, acting stiff and cold when he drops her off at her door. She knows that she likes him, cares for him, enjoys spending time with him, but she realizes that she must take some time to consider their future. She knows that he will not want to be with someone who is unsure of her feelings for him.
On the following Thursday, Eilis watches Tony from a window of Brooklyn College as he waits for her after class. She considers him for a moment, his vulnerability, his openness, his delight in life, and all at once, she seems to come to a decision. She rushes down the stairs and seems to steel herself for what she has to say. Fumblingly, she confesses that if he were to say “I love you” again, she would say “I love you too.” Tony, who had expected a breakup rather than this declaration, is stunned. He is thrilled and excited, even jumping up and down right there on the sidewalk. Eilis, on the other hand, is overwhelmed with anxiety, and asks him not to talk about their children, or push her too far. They kiss for as long as they can without being seen, and Eilis goes inside for the night.
This section introduces the theme of race. Growing up in a homogenous community like Enniscorthy, Eilis has very little awareness of racial issues. She even seems somewhat surprised to hear about the prejudice Jack experiences as an Irish immigrant living in England, peppering him with questions like "What do they shout?" and "Bad words?" (36). That changes when Bartocci's makes the controversial decision to sell stockings for black women, and Eilis is chosen to work the sales counter. The tension at work is exhausting, and so is the racist vitriol of her housemates. Though these comments upset her, Eilis hardly has the vocabulary or historical context to effectively address them. Eilis faces a similarly difficult situation when the bookstore owner tells her about Joshua Rosenblum and the death of his family. By not knowing what the Holocaust is, or the significance it holds for the Jewish community, she upsets the man with her innocent questions. By the end of their conversation, his expression is "distant and forbidding" and it is clear that "he wanted her to leave the shop" (125). Eilis has difficulty navigating the racial diversity of Brooklyn. She learns that here in America, her ignorance of these issues has consequences.
The section features another notable conflict: the split among Mrs. Kehoe's boarders. There are two camps. One is Sheila and Miss McAdam, who take pride in their traditional Irish Catholic values, and look down on the younger girls. The second is Patty and Diana, who are both American-born and governed by more American ideas. Eilis is often caught between the two, especially in the case of the weekly dances. This social dilemma has far more symbolic resonance. Eilis can stay with Miss McAdam and Sheila, who live under the strict social codes and prejudices of a country they no longer live in, or she can go with Patty and Diana, who are young, modern, and fully Americanized. For Eilis, this is something of a choice between Ireland and America, the past and the present, tradition or assimilation. This choice has important consequences. By choosing Miss McAdam and Sheila, Eilis unwittingly forces herself to sit on the sidelines. By choosing Patty and Diana, she chooses to integrate herself into a community of her peers, and this openness is what leads her to Tony.
In her interest in Tony, Eilis is reaffirming this choice of assimilation. The qualities which initially attract her to Tony are the same qualities that she labels as not Irish. She thinks, “He did not seem Irish to her; he was too clean-cut and friendly and open in his gaze" (134). She is charmed by the unembarrassed pleasure he takes in the dancing, and in the "innocent and eager" way that he asks to walk her home (135). He represents something different to Eilis, a future that is grounded in Brooklyn. She represents the same kind of assimilation to him. He implies that he went to an Irish dance for a reason, that he was not interested in a dance where everyone was behaving "like Italians" all night (136). He does not even call himself Italian, explaining instead that he is "from Brooklyn" and that his parents are from Italy (136). It is evident that in dating an Irish girl, Tony himself hopes to become more American and less Italian.
Tony soon becomes an integral part of Eilis's life. He makes her so happy that she actually feels as if she is going home: “Later, during the week, as she was making her way from Bartocci’s to Brooklyn College, she forgot what she was looking forward to; sometimes she actually believed that she was looking forward to thinking about home, letting images of home roam freely in her mind, but it came to her now with a jolt that, no, the feeling she had was only about Friday night and being collected from the house by a man she had met and going to the dance with him in the hall, knowing that he would be walking her back to Mrs. Kehoe’s afterwards” (137). Gone is her homesickness, her feeling of being "nobody" with no connection to the people and places around her. Tony has made them meaningful, and helped her to see a future for herself in Brooklyn that would not be empty. Even in the span of their short relationship, Tony has made Brooklyn a second home to Eilis, and helped her to fashion an American identity that she is comfortable wearing.