Published by Simon & Schuster on Aug. 19, 2014
Genres: Family Drama
Born in 1941 in Queens and raised by a pair of hard-drinking Irish parents, Eileen Tumulty dreamed of a higher station. Although the industrious young woman was hampered by her upbringing and limited by her gender, she was determined to climb the social ladder and live the life of comfort her parents couldn’t give her. When she meets Ed Leary, a research scientist with a promising future, she believes he is the man to make her dreams come true.
However, Ed isn’t the ambitious man she hopes he is. Although Eileen constantly encourages him to pursue promotions and more prestigious positions, he is content to remain where he feels comfortable, passing up opportunity after opportunity. Despite Ed’s complacency, the couple and their son, Connell, finally move into a big house in a good neighborhood. Of course, Eileen is never happy for long; what once seemed a dream home now seems dark and shabby, and she strives even higher. Soon, though, her focus is forced to shift when illness strikes the family. Now, it’s all Eileen can do to hang on to a semblance of normalcy.
If I had to use one word to describe this book, it would be “impressive.” Weighing in at 620 pages, this debut novel took high school teacher Matthew Thomas 10 years to write. When it was finally ready for publication, it sparked a bidding war that earned Thomas more than a $1 million advance. All of this is incredibly impressive, and it sets the bar for this book very high. I think it delivers.
We Are Not Ourselves is a sprawling family epic that follows the Learys as they move from a run-down Irish neighborhood in Queens to a nicer neighborhood that eventually declines (in Eileen’s eyes) due to the influx of immigrants to, finally, a wealthy suburb. At the beginning of the novel, it reminded me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with its backdrop of struggling Irish families in the ’40s, and its portrayal of a young girl striving for a better life. Eventually, of course, the stories diverge, and this novel goes to a place I wasn’t expecting. The cover copy refers to “an inescapable darkness” that enters the Leary family’s lives. I won’t spoil what that is, except to say that it is an illness. It is truly dark and devastating — a disease I’m familiar with but had never read about in this kind of heartbreaking detail.
Eileen is one of those characters that is hard to really like, but she feels so real. She had a difficult upbringing in which she had to care for her alcoholic parents from a young age, and as a result of her childhood, she is a bit cold and distant with her own son, whom she tries to give an easier life than she had. Her near obsession with improving her station and the harsh way she feels toward anything and anyone she considers lower-class make it hard to feel sympathetic toward her — but I think that is the power of her character. I think, in disliking Eileen, we must confront the parts of ourselves that have the same tendencies. She’s not always right, and she can be very intolerant, but she feels human in a challenging way.
We Are Not Ourselves is a powerful epic of a family novel. But it’s also a testament to ambition and fallibility, a dismal look at our healthcare system, and a portrait of the American Dream. Thomas’ writing is gorgeous and thought-provoking, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.