We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas
Simon & Schuster
Available August 19, 2014
640 pages, $32.00.
Debut novelist Matthew Thomas created quite a stir after capturing the interest of prominent publishers with his book We Are Not Ourselves. According to Alison Flood of The Guardian, Thomas quit his teaching job after securing an impressive 7-figure sum for the rights to his first novel. His publishers were onto something big. Thomas’ book is a heart-rending, epic story well worth the time and emotional investment. It may well be one of 2014’s best-loved novels.
We Are not Ourselves tells the story of Eileen Tumulty, the daughter of Irish immigrants living in Queens. Her brawny, hard-working father hauls barrels of beer from the moment he sets foot in America. He didn’t choose to leave Ireland; he came to America “carrying a kernel of regret and heartache that he would feed with his silence.” Eileen’s mother becomes a dejected alcoholic after having a horrible miscarriage that leads to an eight-month hospitalization. Thomas lets his characters’ unhappiness hang heavy in the air of their tiny apartment. To escape the sadness that weighs down her family life, little Eileen daydreams of living in the fancy mansion her mother cleans for a living. Her hopes and determination tugged at my heartstrings.
Eileen continues to yearn for the American Dream as a young woman. After meeting Ed Leary —a handsome, sensitive student researcher— she can easily imagine a comfortable life with him in suburbia. Weeks before their wedding, she presents Ed with an expensive, engraved gold watch. Ed doesn’t accept the gift, calling it too extravagant. This rejection clouds Eileen’s vision of the life she has dreamed up. When her anger and hurt pass, “she [sits] in a little puddle of resentment over how benighted and pinched her future husband was.” This exchange sets up the dynamic of their relationship, for their lifestyle remains modest over the next couple of decades. Ed’s refusal to spend or make more money stifles Eileen’s hopes. Not only could I relate to Eileen’s wish to upgrade and move to a safer neighbourhood, but also to Ed’s need to save for their son’s education. There is much love in their home, but the author keeps the tension ruling their bond tangible at all times.
When Ed is nearly fifty, he changes abruptly. He is no longer dedicated to his work and spends his evenings lying on the couch and listening to opera records in “headphoned isolation.” Exhausted and anxious, he becomes unhinged. The source of his sudden personality change torments Eileen. Is it a midlife crisis? An affair? It’s unclear, but Eileen has “enough energy to make important changes in her life, to pull her husband out of a pit, to yank her whole family out of the maw of a neighborhood that threatened to swallow them whole.”
The story takes on new meaning and intensity when the shift in Eileen and Ed’s relationship occurs. The writer incorporates significant moments in the couple’s early days that resurface to enrich the story at later times. The struggles are real, and the themes are universal. It’s impossible not to project your feelings when immersed in Thomas’ book. You’ll relate by thinking of the future you envision with your spouse, the obstacles of your aging parents, or the challenges your children face. Be forewarned, though, that I sobbed my way through the final chapters of Thomas’ intense family saga. Your heart too may break when you accompany Eileen and her family on their difficult journey.
*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.*