Monday, June 8, 2015

New in Paperback- We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Published by Simon & Schuster ISBN 9781476756677
Trade paperback, $16, 656 pages

One of the books that was getting the most buzz at last year's Book Expo was Matthew Thomas' debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves. The 600 page tome delves into the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary, a girl born to Irish immigrants in 1941.

Her father, called Big Mike, was the man that all of the guys in the neighborhood turned to for advice and a drink. Big Mike spent much of his time at the local bar, holding court and drinking whiskey. The Tumultys lived in a two bedroom apartment, sharing one bedroom with three single beds and the second bedroom belonged to Mr. Kehoe, a quiet boarder.

After Eileen's mother became pregnant and miscarried, she spent months in the hospital. Upon her return home, she was a different woman. She began to drink, and it was up to Eileen to care for not only her father, but now her mother as well. It was a big burden for a young girl.

Eileen knew the way out of her troubles was getting an education. She was smart and worked hard to become a nurse. Her goal was to get into the middle-class. She knew the key to this was marrying a man who shared her dreams. She wanted a man with her father's best qualities:
"She wanted to find a man who was like him, but who hadn't formed as hard an exterior; someone fate had tested, but who had retained a little more innocence. Someone who could rise above the grievances life had put before him. If her father had a weakness, that was it. There were other ways to be strong. She wasn't blind to them.
She wanted a man whose trunk was thick but whose bark was thin, who flowered beautifully, even if only for her."
Eileen found that man in Edwin Leary, a research scientist. After a rocky first blind date, they fell in love and married. Eileen felt sure that they were on their way to being solidly middle-class American. They both had good jobs, and buying a home wouldn't be far behind.

She believed that Ed would climb the ladder at work, and when he was offered a job working for a pharmaceutical company, making a lot more money, she was bewildered when he turned it down.  Ed wanted to teach students at a local college. He also worked endlessly on his research, leaving Eileen and their young son Connell alone for long stretches of time.

It began to dawn on Eileen that maybe Ed didn't want the same things she did. She wanted to keep moving forward, he was content for things to stay the same. The eccentricities she had noticed while courting and thought romantic had "curdled into pathologies. What had been charmingly independent became fussy and self-defeating."

After years of this stasis, Eileen became determined to buy a home. Their neighborhood in Queens was becoming much more diverse, the Irish residents moving away. Eileen looked at homes in Bronxville, closer to her and Ed's work and a place where there was more space.

She found a dilapidated home that needed a great deal of work to make it livable, and after many arguments and Ed saying he was never leaving Queens, she insisted and they bought the house. Soon after, it became apparent that Ed's eccentricities and rages were more than personality quirks; there was something wrong.

Ed was diagnosed with early Alzheimer's. Their world changed overnight and everything Eileen had worked and hoped for was gone. Their place in middle-class America was in jeopardy. Ed had to hide his condition from his employer in order to make it to retirement in 18 months where he would made $1400 more per month than if he left his job now.

Eileen had to make sure she kept her job for ten more years to get to retirement. She saw a lawyer friend who advised her to divorce Ed in order to keep her assets separate, and then Ed would be eligible for Medicaid. What an indictment of the American healthcare system that this is the best option.

Eileen is determined to care for Ed at home, and that becomes increasingly difficult. She hires a man to care for him during the day while she works, and comes home to care for him at night.

We Are Not Ourselves tells not only Eileen's story, but it is ours too. We want what Eileen wants: love, family, satisfying work, a home of our own, our part of the American dream. We are willing to work hard for it, but along the way things happen that can derail our lives. How we deal with the bumps along the road, big and small, will define us.

I loved this beautiful, sad, heartbreaking novel. Eileen is not a perfect woman; her inability to show affection for her son caused both of them much pain. But when the chips were down, Eileen showed her true colors. She did what most us do: step up, soldier on, and do the best we can, even if that sometimes wasn't enough.

There were so many things that made my heart hurt here. When Eileen's mother is on her deathbed after years of sobriety, she tells Eileen that she wishes she hadn't stopped drinking. She would have given everything she had away for another drink. That just killed me.

Eileen's relationship with her son was a heartbreaker too. Connell couldn't step up when she needed him to, and he was willing to throw away everything Eileen and Ed had worked for and hoped for him.  Eileen's rage and disappointment is palpable on the page.

We Are Not Ourselves is the kind of book that you savor as you're reading, devouring it all and occasionally closing the book to contemplate the beautiful language and story. And when I finished it, I wanted to open it again and start re-reading it, wanting to experience it again and yet regretting that I will never read this stunning book for the first time again. But I know this will be a book I turn to again and again.

Frequently books that have such hype can't possibly live up to the expectations. Do not fear, We Are Not Ourselves not only does that, but exceeds it.

rating 5 of 5

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