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We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel Hardcover – August 19, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, August 2014: Ten years in the making, Matthew Thomas’s heartfelt debut launches with the gritty poetry of a Pete Hamill novel: brash Irishmen on barstools, Irish women both wise and strong, and the streets of New York splayed out like a song. What’s special about this book is how Thomas takes us, slowly and somewhat unexpectedly, deep inside a family battling the gray-toned middling place of their middle-class existence. At the core is Eileen Tumulty Leary, urging her complacent husband and their impressionable son forward. Along the way, lives come and go. (“Fair enough,” her mother said, and in a little while she was dead.) There are some gorgeous scenes, some taut lines (I liked the air-conditioning unit’s “indefatigable wind”), and some heartbreakers (a mother tells her son, at the funeral home, “That’s probably enough”). It’s thrilling to see an emerging writer test and flex his voice. Eileen and her husband are “coconspirators in a mission of normalcy”; in truth, there’s occasionally too much normalcy in these 600 pages. Then again, it’s oddly addictive to watch this family unfold, age, and devolve. Intimate, honest, and true, it’s the story of a doomed father and a flawed son and the indefatigable and loving woman who keeps them all together, even as they’re falling apart. --Neal Thompson
“A gripping family saga, maybe the best I've read since The Corrections.”
—Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A
"We Are Not Ourselves is a powerfully moving book, and the figure of Eileen Leary—mother, wife, daughter, lover, nurse, caretaker, whiskey drinker, upwardly mobile dreamer, retrenched protector of values—is a real addition to our literature.”
—Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding
"The mind is a mystery no less than the heart. In We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas has written a masterwork on both, as well as an anatomy of the American middle class in the 20th Century. It's all here: how we live, how we love, how we die, how we carry on. And Thomas does it with the epic sweep and small pleasures of the very best fiction. It's humbling and heartening to read a book this good."
—Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
"Okay, straight out, this novel is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. We Are Not Ourselves delivers the deepest, most involving and best pleasures of reading, the pleasures that have you lose your hours while curled up in a comfy couch, that have you sneaking looks and reading when you should be doing other things. A true epic in the best sense of the word, encompassing the big great gorgeous heartbreak that was our American Century. You doubt me. Please do not. Each page is suffused with a relentless and probing genius, as well as a generous and humane heart, and the result not only explodes across the darkening sky, but remains with you long after you've finished the last page and handed it to someone you love. So long as there are novels like We Are Not Ourselves, so long as there are writers like Matthew Thomas, the form of the novel is more than alive, it is thriving, palpitant.”
—Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children
“In his powerful and significant debut novel, Thomas masterfully evokes one woman’s life in the context of a brilliantly observed Irish working-class milieu….a definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century. Thomas’s emotional truthfulness combines with the novel’s texture and scope to create an unforgettable narrative.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"We Are Not Ourselves is wonderful on the position of the striving classes and our longings on behalf of our families, and on how we deal with unexpected disaster. It’s as fiercely passionate and big-hearted and memorable as Eileen, its I’m-holding-this-family-together-with-my-two-hands protagonist."
—Jim Shepard, author of Project X and You Think That’s Bad
“[A] masterly debut.”
“[A] devastating debut novel . . . an honest, intimate family story with the power to rock you to your core . . . [a] wrenchingly credible main character . . . rich, sprawling . . . Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott . . . Part of what makes We Are Not Ourselves so gripping is the credible yet surprising ways in which it reveals the details of any neuroscientist’s worst nightmare . . . This is a book in which a hundred fast-moving pages feel like a lifetime and everything looks different in retrospect. As in the real world, the reader’s point of view must change as often as those of the characters . . . This is one of the frankest novels ever written about love between a caregiver and a person with a degenerative disease. The great French film “Amour” conveyed the emotional aspects of such a relationship, but Mr. Thomas spares nothing and still makes it clear how deeply in love these soul mates are.” —Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Astonishing and powerful…Thomas’s finely observed tale is riveting. As a reflection of American society in the late 20th century, it’s altogether epic, sweeping the reader along on a journey that’s both inexorable and poignant.” —People
“the sprawling, brilliant, heartbreaking debut novel by Matthew Thomas, is the story of an American family deeply affected by the father’s early-onset Alzheimer’s, told primarily through his wife, Eileen, a fiercely proud nurse. It’s stunning how this novel — page after unblinking page of seemingly mundane details in the lives of three people— can be so utterly captivating and moving.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
Top Customer Reviews
Many reviews - including the Publishers's Weekly blurb - spoil the "loss" and I wish they hadn't. Finding out why Eileen's family is unraveling is a central question of the book, and the great mystery of the middle third. I think I would have enjoyed it more not knowing. Also, this is not a book with plot to spare. This is a 640 page novel that reads like a poem, and I mean that in good ways and possibly in bad ones. The sentences are gorgeous and beautifully crafted. There were three chapters that were so profound I literally turned back and read them again as soon as I had finished the first time. The book is emotionally insightful into the three principal characters of Eileen, her husband Ed, and their later-in-life son Connell. Most of the book is told from Eileen's point of view, although Connell gets a voice starting about halfway through. I wept at the end. It does feel that you have witnessed a life go by.
That being said: this was not my personal favorite kind of book. The publisher compares it to Olive Kitteridge, or an Alice McDermott novel. Fair comparisons - meditations on often neglected women. But those books were 300 pages. This one is 640, with very little story to show for it. It could have been much shorter, in my opinion. I'm more of a Dickens or Donna Tartt reader: I like my big sprawling novels to have big sprawling stories to go with them.Read more ›
The answer, I'm pleased to say, is mostly "yes."
Oh sure, there are some quibbles. The opening 100 pages - the background information that fleshes out the characters - could be edited down a bit. A very minor character appears in the second half of the book and I had to wade through pages to remind myself who she was. Another minor character's part could easily have been written out. And so on.
But in general, this is a page-turning novel that will easily appeal to both literary and mass readers because it's so darn good. The focal character is Eileen Leary - wife, mother, nurse, and striver. Upwardly mobile, she marries Ed, a man who is, in many ways, her opposite: a reliably knowledgeable man who lacked the tolerance for superficial interaction, a scientist and professor. Together, they welcome a son, Connell, who becomes the center of their lives.
But - to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw - men dream and the gods laugh and make other plans. The family is tested in an unforeseen way. Each of them must strive to figure out what's important and what's authentic in a life where the future is shady and the rules have been turned upside-down.
This is a book that poses questions that each of us have mulled over in our minds. How do we claim our own lives and live by our own inner radar...as opposed to what we THINK we want? What makes a life worth livable? How do we survive when the odds are long? What endures when little else remains?
Matthew Thomas creates an authenticity in this story and breathes life into his characters. Without giving anything away, the epilogue is beautifully written and encapsulates the book's meaning and purpose. My best guess is that We Are Not Ourselves will be leading the best-seller list when autumn comes around.
The central focus of this novel is Eileen and her relationship with her husband. Something happens that causes everything to change and which impacts everyone within the family and many without. The build is very gradual, like Ligeti's Lontano, and some have criticised the novel for being a needlessly slow read. I was engrossed in the character development, and although the characters are not consistently likable, they are consistently human. For example, although the characters are in a higher social strata than I am, I was able to understand their desires, frustrations, and losses.
In some ways, this is a book about the myth of the American Dream. The characters believe they have full control over their decisions, that they are the legendary self-made Americans who worked hard to make it to the top. Yet, they are frustrated. It is an empty dream, and striving to reach it produces emptiness and loss, not fulfillment. If this seems Gatsby-esque in its theme, it is certainly not in its content. At its heart, this is pure Naturalism.
The prose is simple and accessible, making it approachable to even the most casual reader. No one should feel intimidated by this book. Despite its length, it is a smooth and captivating read. Unfortunately, at times it becomes a bit sentimental. This is the only reason I hesitatingly give this book four stars instead of five.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This was a sensitively written book that spans several decades in the lives of the main character and her Irish-American family. Read morePublished 2 days ago by nybookworm
Well written. Good insight into what it's like to live with Alzheimer's.Published 4 days ago by D Lee
Sensitively written from mother, wife and son's perspective.Published 9 days ago by Charente, France
One of the best books I have read. I am looking forward to seeing more from this talented author.Published 10 days ago by Nancy Vidalakis
A wonderful panorama of family, place and time. I highly recommend it.Published 10 days ago by Diane Gusick
Top-notch! Matthew Thomas is a world-class writer who knows how to build a world of utter authenticity. Not a single false note.Published 11 days ago by Kindle Customer