Eileen Leary wants things. She grows up in a poor neighborhood with alcoholic, well-intentioned parents and she wants more. She marries a brilliant, kind scientist, and she wants more. A bigger house, a better standing, a child... Eileen wants. But instead, Eileen is about to find that instead of getting more, she is about to suffer a great loss, a loss that will last a lifetime.
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. This book doles out plot very slowly, measured like medicine, a spoonful at a time. Very little happens (which is why I wish the one big development were not spoiled; there aren't others). I'm the reader who hated Middlemarch, and this book is more of a Middlemarch than a Dickens book, in terms of style: poetic and thoughtful. So I can fully recommend it for its craft and skill and emotional acuity. But if you read for story, this might not be the first book you would choose.
When a debut book sparks a bidding war on both sides of the Atlantic, the inevitable question is, "Is it worth all the hype?"
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.
It is hard to talk about this book without spoiling it, but I will try my best. This is really about lower middle class people moving into the upper middle class and how they are affected by the changes that take place in their environment and within themselves. They let themselves down, they pick themselves up, the build, they destroy, they embrace, they abandon.
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. Sentimentality mars a novel that is otherwise a literary masterpiece.
Still, this book rises above this single flaw, and is certainly worthy of the attention it has received. I would read it again, and I look forward to reading more from Thomas in the future.
on August 19, 2014
Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
My Review: Lately I've been on a search to find a great sweeping saga of a read - one that spans a couple of generations and has a lot of drama. So when I read the description of this book on NetGalley it seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
This book was described as 'epic in scope' so I suppose I was expecting much more of a intergenerational family saga with lots of energy, familial turmoil, engaging storylines and characters that I could root for. Unfortunately, this book wasn't what I expected and I had a hard time staying interested.
I admit that certain scenes were touching but overall the book felt excessively long and lagged most of the way. I think We Are Not Ourselves focuses so much attention on character development and relationships that the plot and energy waned and got bogged down in small, daily life details.
It didn't help that Eileen wasn't a character that I clicked with at all. She comes off as self-centred and always on the hunt for the 'things' that will make her happy. She was extremely superficial and I didn't connect with her at all. I'm still not exactly sure why Eileen's xenophobia was brought into the storyline either. It didn't seem to give me a better insight into her and made me like her even less than I already did.
Towards the end of this book I was still holding out hope that the author would divulge some big, monumental secret. Some family skeletons that were going to turn things around and give this book some oomph. Unfortunately that big reveal never came. I will say that I found this book, at times, quite touching and emotional due to personal connections that I have with one of the major issues in this book.
I truly wanted to like this book (and my feelings are in the minority with many other reviewers). But while I found this book to be well written unfortunately it was just too slow moving and I wasn't fond of the characters or its unrelenting melancholy.
My Rating: 2/5 stars
"We Are Not Ourselves" is a quiet, powerful novel that eventually brings the reader to the conclusion that our lives are not only our own, but also an amalgam of the lives preceding and the lives following our own. Matthew Thomas has given readers a book that is, at times, tedious, and at other times is emotionally charged and as poignant as life can be. This is a novel requiring patience, empathy for the characters when you feel they may not deserve it, and a love for character driven stories.
Spanning a 60-year period from 1951 through 2011, "We Are Not Ourselves" follows the life of Eileen Tumulty from adolescence through her marriage to Edmund Leary and finally ending with the focus on their son Connell. A first-generation American and driven by her parents' dreams of a better life and financial success, Eileen seems unable to value her own accomplishments. Her dissatisfaction extends to her view of Edmund's choice of a career as a community college professor over that of one as a corporate researcher. In Connell, Eileen and Edmund see that he has the opportunities they lacked; irrespective of Connell's goals, he becomes their means to achieve their own youthful goals. Only after Edmund's death and after the reading of his father's final letter does Connell understand the depth of his father's love. Like Connell, it is only as Eileen comes to terms with her life that she truly understands the depth of Edmund's love and his impact on her own life.
Initially, "We Are Not Ourselves" is a novel with which I was not particularly impressed; it developed slowly and methodically. Strong characterization resulted in antagonistic reactions to Eileen. She was an individual who was unable to appreciate the extent of her accomplishments; she seemed dissatisfied with everyone and everything. Edmund seemed to lack ambition and drive; using valid reasons, he accepted underemployment and lower economic status. However, as the novel developed and the reasons for behaviors were revealed, I found myself engrossed in all of the Leary's lives and concerns. Edmund's letter to Connell was heartbreaking - if you react emotionally to the books you read, you may want to have a box of Kleenex available when reading the letter.
Matthew Thomas has given readers a book that mirrors life. It elicits strong emotions, both positive and negative, as you read. "We Are Not Ourselves" may have you asking whether its title refers to the effects life and illness have on an individual or whether the title refers to making choices, not because of personal desires but because of the pressure others' goals put on us, in their attempt to move beyond the past through the accomplishments of another. This is a well written and thought provoking novel that requires patience. The book is one of the best pieces of fiction, dealing with Alzheimer's and its effects on both the individual and those impacted by that person's illness, that I have read. "We Are Not Ourselves" is well worth your reading time.
I just finished reading and reviewing a novel about home, identity, and how unexpected human developments/illness can capsize lives, called THE ARSONIST, by Sue Miller. And here are those themes again, but in a much different style, plot, and story. Thomas's debut novel is an epic saga, a tersely executed but moving tale of an Irish-American family, and spans a few generations, from the early 1950s to 2011. The story predominantly focuses on Eileen Tumulty, who is a first generation American, and opens when she is just a child. However, it is her married adult life that is the heart of the novel.
The story is both broad and specific. Thomas expands his lens to incorporate Eileen's life experiences growing up in New York, her hard-bitten childhood, especially dealing with her mother's alcoholism and her father's more veiled gambling problems. At the same time, we get a sense of each era that we pass through, but just enough to strengthen the story at hand. Too, as neighborhoods change or gentrify, we see how they evolve from what preceded them. The details of different suburbs in New York City make them come alive, both physically, socially, and emotionally--an analogy to how people evolve in families. Each generation leaves its fingerprint on the next one. Eileen, in her quest for self-improvement, and her status-conscious nature, is tenacious in her ambitions to climb the ladder of success, "the ineffable something she'd been chasing."
Eileen loves to entertain, and to take pride in her home. Her husband, Ed Leary, a quirky academic/scientist, cares little for furnishings and material trappings. He cares about his work and his students, and playing baseball with their son, Connell. Ed has no aspirations to attain financial wealth, especially if it means sacrificing his principles and giving way to what he calls the decadence of capitalism and consumerism. It is all about the students to him. He has no interest in being an administrator, dean, or corporate executive, positions that were offered to him but that he turned down. Eileen was frustrated at his complacency; she yearned for Ed to aspire for more, specifically a climb to the top of the food chain.
"She needed him to be her partner, because she loved him terribly...and so she was going to save him from himself...He needed a real home no less than she did. His mind had grown smaller as he'd bunkered himself in his ideals...He needed to regroup, to see new possibilities, to think bigger than ever. If there was anything she could help him with, it was thinking big."
Life throws some curve balls at the Leary family, and what is most vivid about the book is the gravitas of Eileen, Ed, and Connell. Eileen is the polestar of the family, and I deeply felt every twist and turn in her life. There are chapters devoted to her husband and son, but it was mostly though Eileen's eyes that we experienced their lives.
Despite the large page count, the pages move swiftly--it isn't dense and wordy. The prose is lean and assured, and the characterizations were supple and organic. There were a few times that I felt the story editing could go a bit smoother, as far as which events were captured and which were not. Periodically, I felt I had missed something, and realized it was just that some events that happened offstage were referred to only later, and it came out slightly unnatural. There were also a few anachronisms, like "Oh, snap," said by a character in the 1990s. However, these are minor irritants, and although it may have removed me from the novel for a few seconds, it didn't have severe consequences.
I don't want to cover much detail, as the surprises and developments in the story daunted me as if I were one of the Leary family, a sort of free-fall that I felt for them when life handed them lemons. And, although Eileen is a completely different character than Scarlett O'Hara, both Irish-American women possessed a certain degree of self-possession, and, especially, resourcefulness. Both women had threats to the nature of their home and home lives (one in Civil War, the other in the everyday war of life), and yet they both persevered with determination and resolute aim. It took me no less than 75 pages to really engage, but eventually it fully absorbed my attention.
4.5 rounded up.
on May 15, 2015
Yes it's very like real life, but do we read to have an extra helping of our miserable quotidian existences? I don't. I can handle depressing if it's interesting, or enlightening, or thought-provoking. Matthew Thomas is an extremely talented writer. I hope next time out he writes a book that takes us through someone else's life faster than it takes us to live our own.
on September 2, 2014
This is the most amazing book if you have a partner suffering with Dementia .It gives a great insight as how both partners are affected..As my husband has been suffering with this disease for the last four years,unfortunately I have had to have him admitted to full Dementia care.I went through all the feelings of guilt but after reading this book it made me realize that those feeling are normal.
I am pleased to say that he has settled in reasonably well over the last six months and I am much more settled as you do not realize how much stress you are under with being the sole caregiver.
Would definitely recommend lt to anyone who is in this situation as it makes you understand how the illness affects both people.
on August 20, 2014
We Are Not Ourselves has been talked about as the "debut of the year", so I'd been looking forward to reading it. After a slow start, it proved to be an extremely powerful and emotional novel dealing with a family managing through hardship.
I went into We Are Not Ourselves without much knowledge of what this book was really about. While this confounded me in the beginning, I was ultimately glad I went in fairly blind, so I won't divulge much detail about the plot in this review.
The first part of the book deals with Eileen's childhood and I had a hard time getting into the story and feeling emotionally invested in the characters. I felt like time flew by (Thomas covers 1938-1964 in the first 8% of the book!), which resulted in a surface level feeling and a lack of emotional connection. I also couldn't figure out where the story was going. But, it turns out Eileen's childhood isn't what this story is really about. Once Thomas moved on to Eileen's adult life and relationship with Ed, I was 100% on board. I almost wonder why Eileen's childhood was covered in one section at the beginning of the book rather than through memories sprinkled in at appropriate times during the "real" story.
On to the good stuff...and there was plenty! Once the story moved on to Ed and Eileen's marriage and the birth of their son, Connell, I was completely wrapped up in the suspense of what's going on with Ed and how it's going to affect Eileen and her dreams of moving up in the world.
We Are Not Ourselves is a portrait of a marriage and a family. It's about a father and a son. It's about people and how they deal with heartache. Each Leary family member and friend handles the pain and awkwardness of tragedy differently, which provides much of the tension and drama of the story. It's also about people's different visions for what would make life better and what happens in a marriage when those visions don't exactly align.
We Are Not Ourselves is a subtle book in the beginning...and then it smacks you in the face with emotion. The main theme isn't overtly put out there until well into the story, but I felt like this was a realistic portrayal of how it must be for the friends and family members of someone undergoing this type of change. They notice little things that seem off, ignore others in the course of their busy lives, make excuses, and come to fuzzy realizations along the way. After all that subtlety, you're thrown in neck deep and don't come up for air until it's over.
This was not a book where I was frantically turning pages trying to find out what happens next...it was a book that affected me emotionally. It's moving, powerful, and heart-wrenching. If you can stomach these kinds of things (I will warn you, some parts are very tough to read), We Are Not Ourselves is one of the best I've ever read.
For more reviews, check out my blog, Sarah's Book Shelves.
We Are Not Ourselves
My " in a nutshell" summary...
This is the story of an Irish American family that begins in 1941. Most of what we learn is told by following the life of Eileen to its truly profound ending.
My thoughts after reading this book...
Wow...I am almost speechless about this book...almost! I actually began reading this book when we started an 8 hour car trip. I truly could not put this book aside...only when we were on winding country roads did I even once think about putting it down. I would call Eileen the pivotal character in this story. Her early childhood with her parents...both alcoholics...was different. Her parents' relationship was so sad...so dysfunctional...both drank...her father gambled...but she had a relatively normal abnormal childhood. Eileen was determined to make something of her life...to go to college...get a house...have a normal life. When she meets Ed...marries...has her son Connell...gets that house that she wants...everything in her life seems perfect.
What I loved about this book...
Eileen always seemed not quite a normal character but not that abnormal of a character to me. Her upbringing was strained...especially her relationship with her mother. Her relationship with her father...was strained...but I loved the way he taught her how not to drink. Eileen and Ed...OMG...I can't even go down this road with anyone. It was unreal...yet it happens...it was so sad...I cried...my heart was so sad because what Ed went through happens to so many people. The letter he wrote to his son...touching...monumental...so heartfelt.
This is a big book...a big bold book. It's a saga that goes through generations. It's about Irish families and being sent to America and helping others in your family get here. It's about strained relationships and working hard and frustrations. It's about seeing something happening to someone you love and not really knowing why. This book was like nothing I have ever read before and I loved every single word.