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We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel Paperback – June 2, 2015
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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--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
"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.”
“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
“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
“[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
“Stunning...The novel is a formidable tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, to the restorative and ultimately triumphant supremacy of love over life’s adversities....The joys of this book are the joys of any classic work of literature — for that is what this is destined to become — superbly rendered small moments that capture both an individual life and the universality of that person’s experience.”
—The Washington Post
“An ambitious, beautifully written novel about ambition and what it can do and not do [that] deals with the classic American Dream in all its messy complications.”
“A long, gorgeous, epic, full of love and caring….one of the best novels you’ll read this year.”
—New York Times Book Review
“A great novel about hope, heartbreak, family, and failure in America."
“A stunning, stunning book…Possibly the most engaged I’ve been with any book this year.”
—Phil Klay, “Year in Reading” on TheMillions.com
“The greatest Alzheimer’s novel yet…We Are Not Ourselves exceeds the usual boundaries of fiction on the subject.”
—Stefan Merril Block, NewYorker.com
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Eileen’s journey begins in the early 1940s and continues to the present. She meets a man whom she thinks is totally different from her father. Ed is a research scientist who seems polite and sensitive. Yet after they marry, he becomes obsessed with his work and won’t spend an extra penny unless Eileen pushes and pushes and pushes. Here is what makes this novel unique – while Eileen’s resentments and frustrations accumulate, she at pivotal points remembers why she loved this soft, gentle man and how what is so much imperfection is actually what makes him reliable and perfect. That is the key to all the disasters and shocks that follow.
Eileen and Ed have a son, Connell, and after much struggle, Eileen can say she now owns the home she always dreamed of. One is almost waiting for the Damocles sword to fall and so it does! Ed, the brilliant scientist, research man and Professor is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The rest of the novel is about cherishing every moment as special and dealing with a devastating disease that breaks down the brain, nervous system and then the body. Eileen is determined that Connell will be educated and have a chance at that dream; but this is hard to maintain when he watches his father’s demise, then swerves elsewhere and finally finds hope in love to continue on his own dream. The author leaves nothing to the imagination and presents an issue rarely discussed about this disease, the fear that it generates in children who wonder if they are carrying the same gene that will mar their future with this hideous disease.
We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel is a long, engaging story that one can’t put down. It’s drama lies in the everyday realities where one tries to make sense of the incomprehensible, where one struggles not to sink in despair at the formidable obstacles life offers, and where one truly loves “for better or worse” while still striving for more. The dream is nothing without the love and vision of the dreamers and therein lies the rub! Lovely, Matthew Thomas and fine, fine writing!
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.
I felt this way with this book. Halfway through, the plot device, which is heavily foreshadowed is revealed, It is not a shock. You would think this changes things, moves it forward, causes the characters to grow, change, evolve, learn. Nope, they don't, not really. They remain generic, their lives and story mundane despite the plot twist.
Perhaps I am being too harsh, the author is trying to send a message-- but understanding that message feels like homework. I don't consider myself ignorant. I read about two books a month, all sorts of genres. This book is not an entertaining read. It is flat, dull, and boring. It is what happens when a short story is stretched into a dull, and an "Oh will you just get to the point!" frustrating type novel.
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