A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of the quintessential New York books. I like it for the way it captures, in great detail, city life in the early 20th century. Betty Smith brings you not just the general sights and sounds, but the way people talked, the kinds of food they ate and how they ate it, how different ethnicities coexisted, and so much more. If it were merely an archive of urban life during a critical growth period in American history, it would still be valuable - but of course, it's much more than that.
I had read Tree before, but I was still amazed at the frankness Smith brings to the story of young Francie Nolan. Long before Judy Blume, Smith writes from a child's-eye view about things like sex, menstruation, inter-gender dynamics, and even rape. Francie yearns to understand the world and her place in it, and even if she's not as outgoing or sociable as her peers, or even her brother Neeley, one gets the feeling she'll be all right anyway.
I found her mother, Katie, a curiosity. She meets Johnny, the man who will become her husband, by straight up stealing him from her best friend without any apologies. In time, she realizes Johnny's an alcoholic who can't provide for his family like he should, but she remains loyal to him. And after he dies, she denies herself happiness with another man who truly loves her (before giving in eventually) out of that same loyalty. I realize part of her behavior is a result of the cultural mores of the time and place she lived in, but she struck me as a paradox, not easily pinned down.
Indeed, Smith treats many of her characters this way. Even peripherals who come and go in only one or two scenes get examined closely by Smith, who hops in and out of people's heads freely. It's a bit off-putting at first to contemporary writers like me who were taught to stick to one POV at a time, but one gets used to it over the course of the story.
I did think Tree went on a bit too long. There were moments late in the book, after Johnny's death, that seemed either superfluous (I didn't think Katie really needed another child) or dragged (Francie's employment experiences). It wasn't much of a bother, though. Tree is one of the great novels of the 20th century and should be on every young adult reading list.
The Thin Man