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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
“The Corrections. The Art of Fielding. Most years, there’s a mega-hyped American epic that’s heralded as a literary breakout. This year’s, a saga about an Irish-American family in Queens, is refreshingly unpretentious but packed with soul—and profoundly moving characters.” —Entertainment Weekly, The Must List
“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
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By the time she meets Ed Leary, Eileen Tumulty has already decided what she wants out of life and that is to escape from the Woodside, Queens neighborhood where she grew up. As the daughter of hard-working, but hard-drinking Irish parents in a loveless marriage, Eileen spent most of her childhood propping up her mother and running the household.
Once married, Eileen’s dreams of an elegant home seem within reach. She is a successful nurse. Ed is a brilliant research scientist and she can already envision where his career path will take them. A baby boy, Connell, completes the picture. What Eileen doesn’t foresee is Ed’s resistance to change. He’s happy where he is, first as a tireless and hyper-focused researcher and then as a professor at a community college, intent on making his mark right there.
This is a story in itself, full of complicated family dynamics and marital conflict, but when Ed is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the Leary family changes into something else. Once again, the burden falls on Eileen to step up and make key family decisions, including the most important one, how long to keep Ed at home.
I was drawn into We Are Not Ourselves because of this story set-up. Thomas has a simple, sometimes clipped, but often elegant writing style. He includes a lot of side characters and scenes, however, which plump the book up to its hefty 623 pages. It’s hard not to question these digressions, including a good deal of baseball references, most appreciated by fans, but extraneous to others. Side plots, such as Connell’s stint as a doorman and Eileen’s visits to a series of cult-like therapy sessions, have only loose connections to the plot. In addition, a long rant about the American healthcare system seems contrived and preachy.
Despite its length, the main characters, especially Eileen and Connell, remain undeveloped, which makes it hard to identify with them. Because the reader knows little else about Eileen’s emotions, her drive for a better life merely comes across as selfish, cold and judgmental. Connell is equally self-absorbed and unable to do his part. It’s tempting to give him the teenager’s pass for being irresponsible, but there’s just not enough in his character to warrant it. Thomas leaves a frustrating gap between all three characters and when he does bring them together, their emotional connections are hard to believe.
Ed is the center of the story and is the most developed character. Even before his diagnosis, it’s easier to sympathize with him when Eileen tries to push him around. That also makes it easy to dislike her and Connell. Maybe that’s the whole point of the book’s construction, to force the reader to focus on Ed. And perhaps that’s why Eileen and Connell are such flat characters. I guess I just wanted to like someone in the story. The only one who came close was Ed.
Criticism aside, I did enjoy the book and there were many moving sections and telling dialogue, where only a few words make a great point, one of Thomas’s obvious talents. Here’s a great example.
When Ed receives his diagnosis, right away, Eileen says they need to get a second opinion. Ed’s response says it all, revealing a keen sense of self-awareness:
"We don’t need a second opinion. He’s the second opinion."
Another favorite scene is when Ed and Eileen are at Macy’s. Ed is intent on buying her a dress for Christmas. He wants to surprise her, but Eileen has to help. His ability to communicate has already begun to crumble, but he puts his words just right:
"'I like you in blue,’ he said. The simplicity of the declaration put an ache in her chest. He directed no animosity at her for having rescued him in the transaction. He seemed to feel only a naked desire to please. He was being stripped of pride, of ego, ruined, destroyed. He was also being softened."
Scenes in the nursing home are equally moving, giving the reader insight into the meaning of Ed’s limited words, some of them heartbreaking. I think this is the strongest part of the book. And the most beautiful part of the book is Ed’s letter to Connell. While a reminder that there are no guarantees in life is nothing new, Ed has the best advice for his son:
"What matters most right now is that you hear how much I want you to live your life and enjoy it. I don’t want you to be held back by what’s happened to me."
A good message and Connell will try to take it to heart.
There were times I wasn't fond of the wife, but she had life thrown in her face from a young age and always dealt with more responsibilty than most could handle, so she became a strong, tough woman, and you had to really admire her guts and bravo in dealing with all the situations in life.
This book might have been somewhat slow in the beginning but once you reach the middle you become mesmerized with questions, dread for Eileen and looking for the optimistic ending, if there was to be one. Eileen's journey is not unlike millions of women in our society today trying to balance a lifetime of desires, ambitions, loves and heartaches. Eileen learns that there are no easy answers and trying to be strong in the midst of chaos is not always easy but if we are to survive what life throws at us then we all have to learn to adapt and change otherwise we will be destroyed! Life is a journey of many minute parts and events and not until we get closer to the end than the beginning sometimes can we appreciate what we have had and what possibilities still lie ahead of us if we don't give up an don't give in.
In the end, as sad as the story's conclusions became it also became clear that there was still hope and light at the end of the tunnel and as the old saying goes "life goes on!" Well worth the read and a book I just happened on to by accident but it gave me optimism for a future I can't see at the moment but is out there waiting if I take the time to look for it.