We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (4 out of 5)
I am not often lucky enough to read two books, back to back, that were both fantastically written. First I read All That We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, then started on this one right away. I have noticed a ton of press for Thomas’ book, and one of my regular customers couldn’t remember the name of it last week. The minute she described it, I knew, also because it’s been written up quite a bit in the last couple of weeks. Many accolades have called forth, rightly deserved. Parts of this book read so well, you almost believe this is autobiographical in some nature. There are chapters that were so beautiful that I had to go back and read them. All of the participants in this family are very real, and you take their journey to heart. Not an easy thing to convey in books sometimes, but Matthew Thomas has mastered it here.
Eileen Tumulty is born into an Irish immigrant family in Queens in the 40’s. She’s raised in an apartment, where the temperature of the mood depends on whom is visiting and how much alcohol may or may not have been consumed. Eileen thinks she’s onto the next big step in her life when Ed Leary, a scientist who is nothing like those neighborhood boys she grew up with, walks into her life. The inevitable attraction is there, and a courtship ensues. Eileen has big plans of a life where she conquers the world, her dreams of bigger and better are brought to life, and things aren’t as dark and hopeless as they often seem in that little apartment. She believes, wrongly, that Ed will share her vision and help her open those doors to a palatial home filled with opulent dreams. They marry, and before long, Eileen realizes that this man she married doesn’t have the inclination to go any further into the American Dream. Eileen tries so hard to convince him that there is so much more that they could have, but Ed just seems to care less and less about those attainable things, as he begins to care less about anything. The marriage, and Eileen’s dreams of a better life, may not survive what turns out to be a major psychological pothole and a medical tragedy. They have a son, Connell, who’s also caught in between this seismic shift of personalities. Eileen sees things going downhill, but she fails to act upon them, because she really has done a stellar job of convincing herself that she will have those dreams come to fruition. She fails to realize that Ed just has simply stopped caring, and may never have cared that much, in the first place. The reasons for this are unexpected and tragic. But, may I remind the reader, realistic.
You know pretty much by that review that it’s not a “Don’t worry, be happy” book. Which is another reason I enjoyed it so much. There are some parts of the book that lagged, but the quest to see if any of Eileen’s dreams come true overruled that through much of the book, and I didn’t stop until I finished it. Within a day. And it’s not a quick book, by any means. The personalities in this book are superbly crafted as they watch the years go by, history and the world change, and nothing really changes in the Leary house. Eileen is a pretty strong character; most other female characters I have read would have been long gone, had their husbands not delivered on previous aspirations. She keeps on trying. Ed drove me nuts, although when you read and realize what is going on there, the sentiment shifts radically to empathy. Connell, I felt for that kid. Great child model for this family. The tilting of their world continues throughout the novel, and up to the end, but you always feel like there’s something, some hope of promise, around the corner, on the next page. There’s some hope in this something bleak book, and I loved that Matthew Thomas pulled that off. I also have to say that there were a few chapters that I felt could have been omitted. Again, however, this is a superbly written, very realistic look of life in a family where things often do not go according to plan. Some of us call that life.