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Review: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

When I began listening to the audio book We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (beautifully read by Mare Winningham) I really had no idea what I was getting into. I’m not sure how I got it on my reading list except that I am making an effort to read more contemporary literature and I think I saw it on a list of notable new books. I had the vague notion it was a family drama about immigrants, which it was, but the drama was both more and less dramatic than I expected. The novel is basically the story of a life, that of Eileen Tumulty, a woman born in 1941 to working class Irish immigrant parents living in Queens New York. The story follows Eileen’s life, through her childhood, education, career as a nurse, marriage, and parenthood until 2011, leaving her alive at the end.

Eileen’s parents have a troubled marriage and are disappointed with their lot in life, especially her mother who falls into a long illness and then alcoholism after suffering a miscarriage when Eileen is nine years old. Eileen’s father is a hard worker who works a second job at a bar, the place where he is most happy, so Eileen takes over the cooking, cleaning, and care taking of her mother. Fortunately, Eileen is a smart, resourceful, resilient girl who does well in school despite her difficult home life. At thirteen she gets Alcoholics Anonymous on the telephone and hands it to her mother, opening the door to her mother’s recovery, just one of the redemptions that happen throughout this novel.

Eileen’s childhood and teen years set the stage is set for her over-developed sense of responsibility and a persistent desire for a respectable stable upper middle class life, the main ingredient of which is a house in a good neighborhood. Eileen is slim and attractive enough to get a job as a dress model in a department store while attending nursing school. I found it interesting that department stores used to employ dress models for wealthy shoppers. Anyway she has lots of dates with interested men but holds out for one who she thinks will help her get to dream house and lifestyle she dreams of.

Ed Leary is different from the others. He seems smart and ambitious. He studying neuroscience and plans an academic career. But when Eileen buys him an expensive engraved watch before their wedding he refuses to wear such an extravagant item. Eileen nearly calls off the wedding. Eileen’s father, Big Mike Tumulty, tells her he is not surprised because Ed’s family has been in this country for three generations and none of them owns a house. “That’s a sin,” he says. Eileen however loves Ed and marries him anyway.

The book resonated with me on several levels. It’s about what it means to have expectations in life, especially when living a life in a certain period in American history. How sharply defined was that vision about what it meant to have a good life and how many people shared that vision! It was difficult, I suppose, not to see it as universal. The lush neighborhoods we see from past decades as well as the ones we see still being built are witnesses to the size of the market for this vision. Also, Eileen’s life roughly coincides with the life of my mother, who was born in 1939, the daughter of second generation immigrants, also working class. My Mom also dreamed of a better life that involved a house in the suburbs and also achieved that dream. And Like Eileen she also faced many disappointments.

Actually Eileen faces more than garden-variety disappointments. Her husband, always unusual, becomes more and more eccentric. Though he is never in sync with her ambitions she works hard to make their life work. After 10 years of marriage Eileen finally becomes pregnant at age 35, long after she and Ed have given up hope of becoming parents. Their only son Connell is born in 1977 and joins the novel as a major character, going through his own up and downs, being profoundly changed by the end of the book. It was interesting how the author showed the development of Connell’s character: wavering between strength and weakness, good and evil. At the end he 34 years old and we see get an idea of what kind of person he has become.

Eileen is able to buy the house where they have been renting an apartment on the second floor. But things never quite work out as she hopes and Ed keeps getting weirder and weirder: turning down great job opportunities, insisting on teaching community college students for a lower salary, wearing old clothes, freaking out over odd things, never wanting anything to change. But he is great father to Connell and the sex is always good. Until something worse happens and the family faces a dark challenge that changes everyone.

I ended up loving this novel. Eileen  is a wonderful character, a strong courageous woman but with some serious flaws. The way Thomas portrays her  is both deeply compassionate but completely honest. I found her development as a character to be a fascinating look at the intersection between personal character and cultural influences.  The last couple of chapters are especially beautiful as the novel comes to bittersweet resolution. But the book was also quite long and parts of it were painful to read. There are characters who appear rather suddenly without any past history, such as Bethany a former co-worker who leads Eileen to the edges of a spiritual cult. You are just told that Eileen knew the person the past.

But such minor flaws are easy to forgive because the writing is generally wonderful and you care so much about the characters. In the end I am a better, more aware person for having read it. The story sticks. I have learned things and become more sensitive to the sorrows and struggles people may be living through. I have increased insight to my own family past – new things to consider as I sift through the history and the memories. All these things are priceless gifts and therefore I must consider this novel a keeper.

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