Review: ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ is an epic debut novel

Posted Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

We Are Not Ourselves

by Matthew Thomas

Simon & Schuster, $28

* * * * * 

Audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, $49.99; read by actress Mare Winningham.

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Eileen Tumulty Leary is a determined woman.

She didn’t have an easy childhood. Born in 1941 and raised in Queens by Irish immigrants, she grew up in a family devoid of affection. They lived in a small apartment, the three of them sleeping on twin beds in one bedroom so they could get additional income from a lodger in the other bedroom. Money was tight, her parents drank a lot, and Eileen had to grow up fast.

But Eileen had dreams. Big, American dreams. She went to nursing school. She got good jobs. She met Ed Leary, a handsome scientist — an expert on the brain. They fell in love and got married.

And Eileen kept pushing for a better life, and soon they had a son, Connell, and bought a home, a three-family house, but Eileen wanted more. She wanted a single-family house in Bronxville — a “big, impressive home.”

We Are Not Ourselves, a stunningly beautiful first novel by Matthew Thomas, is Eileen’s story — and Ed’s and their son Connell’s. It’s also a story about 20th-century America, about ambition and hopes and believing that upward mobility will get you what you want — except that life has a way of getting in the way of those best-laid plans.

Thomas, a high-school English teacher in New York City in his late 30s, is reported to have worked on the novel for more than a decade. The Independent noted in July that Simon & Schuster bought the 600-plus page tome for $1 million and that rights in the U.K. went for “six figures” at this spring’s London Book Fair.

The heated buzz on the book has been that it is an “epic” Irish-American novel, following Eileen’s life from her birth through the turn of the century. The buzz is well-deserved.

As Eileen pushes ever upward, her plans start to unravel. Ed starts behaving very oddly. A dark cloud seems to be hanging over the family and, sure enough, it finds itself faced with enormous problems — problems so trying that, as the book’s title suggests, all three family members find themselves adrift, not their best selves, not the people they had hoped and planned to be. The title is a Shakespearean reference, from the pages of King Lear:

Maybe he is not well.

Infirmity doth still neglect all office

Whereto our health is bound. We are not ourselves

When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind

To suffer with the body.

It seems that Ed, the brain scientist, has something wrong with his brain. This is a book about American dreams, but it is also a book about living through grief — though maybe not as you might expect. Grief doesn’t arrive as a shocking loss. Instead, it creeps into this family’s life and takes over before it realizes what exactly is happening.

While it is tempting to give away more of the plot, part of the magic of this book is that gradual dawn of realization as the characters face what the fates have dealt them, taking the reader along for their downward-spiraling rides.

This is not an easy book to read because of its emotional, painfully sad weightiness. At one point, as I was in the thick of the novel, I started getting a little depressed and told my husband about what was happening with the characters, to which he replied, “And why are you reading that?”

It was a fair question. There are novels we read so we can escape to exotic locales and peek into the lives of the wealthy and privileged. There are novels we read to entertain us, and novels that challenge our ability to solve mysteries.

And then there are novels like this one, that dive deeply into richly imagined characters that struggle with issues which are at the very core of what makes us human.

Eileen became my friend as I read. I had to know how this determined but flawed woman would handle her wheels-off situation. She could be my neighbor or someone in my family. She could be me.

Thomas’ incredible gift for character development is matched by a nuance for language and a gift for storytelling. The details of every scene are striking, as are the windows into Eileen’s and Connell’s thoughts and feelings. Take this passage, for example, as Eileen sneaks back, without her real estate agent, to look again at a potential new home in Bronxville:

“She went to the master bedroom and sat leaning against the wall, by the windows. The longer she sat, the more nervous she grew, but she couldn’t bring herself to get up. She was waiting for external circumstances to dictate her next move. She felt like a mountain climber who had reached a longed-for summit and couldn’t bear to return to normal life.”

Or this scene, where Connell and his mother are unloading groceries:

“When his mother came home, Connell went down to help with the groceries, his father following closely behind. He could see his mother evaluating the bags she handed to his father. She made sure he only had cans, lunchmeats, and boxes, nothing that would roll too far away or break.

“His mother pulled out a box of Ritz and opened it before the bags were even unpacked.

“Connell tore open a bag of potato chips. ‘I can’t stop eating lately,’ he said to his mother. Both their mouths were full.

“ ‘Don’t catch my disease,’ his mother said. ‘I eat to fill the void.’

“It occurred to Connell that the void was the house itself. It was too big, too empty; he could imagine eating himself into obesity in it.”

Everyone goes through times that shift the direction of their lives, creating what is popularly known as a “new normal.” The Leary family’s new normal hits rock bottom. But ultimately Eileen is a determined woman who loves her husband. And Ed is a loving husband who doesn’t want to lose his wife. And Connell doesn’t want to give up on his family, either.

This is a family that was happily and remarkably built on love, and these essential feelings may be buried by circumstances, but they can survive.

This is a big book — an epic book, indeed — filled with big, thoughtful ideas and minute, equally thoughtful details. But most of all, it’s a powerful story about people.

We Are Not Ourselves shows that, in the end, despite life’s often cruel realities, we can be ourselves. And who we are is not a product of whether we have that big, fancy home or whether our health is good or bad.

At the end of the day, this book suggests, it’s not about how we live but about how we love that matters.

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