Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book Review: We Are Not Ourselves

We Are Not Ourselves
By: Matthew Thomas
Published By: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: August 19, 2014
Page Count: 640
Source: ARC Provided By Publisher
Genre/Audience: Adult - Literary Fiction

When publishers spanning both sides of the Atlantic get into a bidding war over a book, and the author inspires articles with titles like "The High School English Teacher Who Sold His Debut Novel for $1 Million" and a blurb on Page Six, it commands a certain amount of attention. And I'm happy to say that Matthew Thomas's We Are Not Ourselves deserves the attention it has received and then some.

Epic in scope, We Are Not Ourselves follows Eileen Tumulty and her family through 50+ years of their lives in NYC and is a novel about progress, coping, love, education, social class, loss, identity, acceptance, and aspiring to always be more. Eileen's journey starts caring for alcoholic parents, raising herself with little more than nothing, and a commitment to provide for herself much more than she had growing up. She meets Ed Leary, a scientist destined to become a respected professor, and immediately sees a future full of promise, white picket fences, polished silver services, and an upwardly mobile career path for her husband. Though Eileen truly loves Ed, it doesn't take long for her to realize he doesn't quantify success in the same ways she does.

 Matthew Thomas's gift is in weaving together gorgeously simple vignettes that could each stand alone as a character-driven short story. His insight to the domestic, middle-aged strife Eileen feels stir feelings of conspiratorial, sympathetic understanding and a selfish self-loathing. And the loathing is a for both the character and oneself when the reader identifies with Eileen at her lowest points. Because of these snippets of everyday life are expertly woven together, the early part of Eileen's life sets the stage without lulling or feeling forced, as exposition sometimes does. The descriptions of her early courtship with Ed ring true, and the entire last half of the book has the reader alternating between tears and awe in it's accuracy of dealing with (spoiler alert) early onset and aggressive Alzheimer's.

The only fault I could grasp at with this novel is the editing. It's lengthy at 640 pages, but after finishing it, deciding what sections could be cut to make it more palatable would be impossible. It's all necessary, and it's all beautiful.

(Personal Note RE Spoiler Alert: My father's progression through the disease was spot on with Ed's, with my father seeing symptoms as early as his late 40's and having similar experiences in the early stages while still working and teaching as Ed does. This novel was painful both for the dormant memories it jarred and the looming future I may have with the same disease. Had I known going in that early onset Alzheimer's would encompass nearly half the novel, I might not have picked it up, but I'm incredibly glad I did. The reading process was cathartic and I'd recommend this to anyone with similar experiences.)

Summary via Goodreads

Destined to be a classic, this "powerfully moving" (Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding), multigenerational debut novel of an Irish-American family is nothing short of a “masterwork” (Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End).

Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on whether guests are over and how much alcohol has been consumed.

When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she’s found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn’t aspire to the same, ever bigger, stakes in the American Dream.

Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house, but as years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. An inescapable darkness enters their lives, and Eileen and Ed and their son Connell try desperately to hold together a semblance of the reality they have known, and to preserve, against long odds, an idea they have cherished of the future.

Through the Learys, novelist Matthew Thomas charts the story of the American Century, particularly the promise of domestic bliss and economic prosperity that captured hearts and minds after WWII. The result is a riveting and affecting work of art; one that reminds us that life is more than a tally of victories and defeats, that we live to love and be loved, and that we should tell each other so before the moment slips away.

Epic in scope, heroic in character, masterful in prose, We Are Not Ourselves heralds the arrival of a major new talent in contemporary fiction.


  1. Wow/! How come I have never heard of this book
    Publishers in a bidding war and one million! OMG, this has to be really good
    GREAT review, though
    Your reader,

  2. This sounds like such a great story, heartbreaking, but wonderful. Thanks very much for the insightful and very personal review. I'm looking forward to it.

    1. It really is my absolute favorite read this year...I was just looking back at the highlights I marked as I read, and they brought me to tears. This is a story that sticks with you and grows as you get some distance.

  3. The book sounds very interesting.

  4. Wow, what a premise and backdrop. It's so rare to find an enjoyable book that spans so many decades in plot.


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