A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the most nostalgic, sentimental book I have ever read. It starts slow. A hundred pages in and all you have is character description, setting, and back story (personally, I would have been happy with much less back story). Another hundred pages in you'll find what may be the start of the story, more setting, more character description. If you're more astute than I was, by this point you should have figured out that this was the story. In many novels, such a lack of defined plot would be detrimental to the success of the book. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the loosely-defined story is its strength.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of living and wanting and hoping. It centers around a Brooklyn girl and her family in the early 1900s. What else could one say about the story? That's pretty much what the book is about. That's not to say events do not happen, events that are important in the life of Francie, but these moments are not what the story is about, nor are they all that memorable. They mirror our own lives. Sure a fist fight may have seemed significant when you were in the second grade. The death of a relative may have seemed insurmountable at the time. A short-lived romance may have felt like the moving of heaven and earth when you were sixteen. But who'd read a book about events that seem so trivial in hindsight? Betty Smith, that's who.
Smith has truly captured what it means to be human in this debut novel. She recalls childhood with such insight that it is easy to forget you're reading. It doesn't matter that her streets were not my own. Nor that her wars were not mine. One hundred years may separate us, but I could largely identify with Francie Nolan. While cultural differences abound throughout the world, there is enough honest truth at the heart of Francie's story that I'd argue it is universal at its core. Regardless of plot, that is effective storytelling.
It's difficult to write a riveting book, but one is published often enough that you know you'll find another page-turner one day, if not soon. But to find such a real, honest, and natural book again... there is always hope.