Title: We Are Not Ourselves
Author: Matthew Thomas
No. of Pages: 640
Genre: Literary Fiction
Origins: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: 19 August 2014
Bottom Line: An incredible story but the subject matter hits a bit too close to home
“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.”
Thoughts: Eileen and Ed are a perfect example of the attraction of opposites. Eileen is a force of nature. Determined, committed, and stubborn, she knows what she wants and does not stop until she achieves it. Ed is the yin to her yang. Where she is forceful, he is unassuming. Where she is aspiring to greater heights, he keeps her grounded to reality. Together, they form a lovely example of marriage, its compromises, its hills and valleys, and the work that goes into a long-lasting relationship.
When things do start going downhill though, for reasons that readers will glean much sooner than Eileen is willing to face the truth, what follows is nothing but heartache, the kind that tears through one’s gut and rips one apart. What befalls Ed is such an ugly disease, and everything he does to prevent the inevitable is devastating once one knows what is happening.
That this all occurs while their son is still young and impressionable is one of the more tragic elements of the story, in a story that is almost too difficult to read at times. Connor must deal with watching his father’s very slow and humiliating decline in addition to facing the pressures of adolescence. His struggles will leave no one surprised, but that makes them no less difficult to watch unfold.
For readers who know of someone who is currently suffering from the same disease as Ed or has watched a loved one decline in the same fashion, We Are Not Ourselves is a very difficult story to read. Mr. Thomas captures the suffering of all involved, the guilt of those left behind, and the simple unfairness of a disease that takes a loved one away so cruelly. He even takes it one step further by showing just how the simple act of watching a parent suffer through the disease can impact a child’s actions and decisions. In many ways, We Are Not Ourselves raises awareness of the silent suffering of patients and families, and one can only hope that readers will hear the message and do anything they can to help find a cure or a preventative measure for this ruthless disease.
It is worth noting that my father-in-law is suffering from a similar fate as Ed. While he is not as young as Ed, much of what Eileen and Connor experience is almost exactly the same as what my mother-in-law faces on a daily basis and has for the last five years. To say that We Are Not Ourselves affected me personally is an understatement. There were times that I could not read any further that a few pages. As it was, I could only read this story in short bursts. Everything about it is so raw and so powerful that it put me into an emotional tailspin. I mentioned the novel to my husband but quickly decided that this was one book I would not let him read. He is living through the novel as it is; there is no need to make him experience it in print as well. My response to the story was so visceral that I would caution any reader with firsthand experience with a dementia disease on reading We Are Not Ourselves. Sometimes, especially with such diseases, there is such a thing as too much.
We Are Not Ourselves is intense and uninhibited and beautiful. Eileen suffers so much throughout her life but maintains a majestic dignity through it all. Yet, she is nothing special. She is every woman, and every woman is Eileen. Her bond with Ed is special, which makes the end so much more difficult to bear. Mr. Thomas gets everything correct about such diseases, and the picture he paints is every bit as ugly as real life can get. As the baby boomer generation ages, more and more families will experience a similar story to Eileen’s and Ed’s and will understand just how insightful We Are Not Ourselves truly is.