We Are Not Ourselves
Picking up a 600-plus-page debut novel is always a risky proposition. Even when you're familiar with an author's work, tackling a book that long is quite a commitment. With a first-time author, though, you never know what you're going to get. Rest assured that Matthew Thomas's debut, WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, is worth the investment of time, attention and emotional involvement it asks of its readers.
Ostensibly the story of one woman's life as she journeys from a troubled childhood in Queens in the 1940s to upper-middle-class comfort in suburban Bronxville in the 1990s, WE ARE NOT OURSELVES is simultaneously, on a macro scale, the story of shifting demographics and economic opportunities over the same period and, on a micro scale, the intensely personal story of how one family's crisis forces a change in priorities and expectations for each of its individual members.
Eileen Tumulty grew up in a working-class family in Queens. Her father, Big Mike Tumulty, was a born politician, the kind of guy who gained instant respect from everyone he encountered nightly at the local bar. Eileen's mother, weighed down by disappointments large and small, turned to drinking, and the simmering hostilities between her parents came to define much of Eileen's childhood. Bolstering Eileen's outlook, along with her own ambition, is her hope someday to escape her poor Irish upbringing by marrying someone with equally high aims and moving somewhere like the middle-class Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, a place she has admired ever since her father took her there as a child.
"Rest assured that Matthew Thomas's debut, WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, is worth the investment of time, attention and emotional involvement it asks of its readers.... a strong and realistic portrait of a marriage..."
As a young wife to Ed Leary, a biological researcher and faculty member at Bronx Community College, Eileen is able to move to Jackson Heights, first renting an apartment and eventually owning the multi-unit building in which they had been renting. A competent nurse, Eileen has some career success of her own, but is inevitably disappointed when Ed repeatedly turns down opportunities for advancement that could lead to additional trappings of success: a prestigious private school for their son Connell, imported cars and, most importantly, an expansive house in the suburbs.
But just as Eileen sacrifices everything to get her suburban dream house (or something like it), she discovers what might be the real root behind Ed's reluctance to make big changes, the same root cause that might explain his increasingly troubling behavior in the classroom and at home. Just as she's achieved everything she's ever wanted, Eileen must reconsider what's really important, what really endures.
WE ARE NOT OURSELVES is a lot of things --- at this expansive length, how could it not be? --- but at its heart, it's a strong and realistic portrait of a marriage, one in which Eileen and Ed come together and grow apart, take each other for granted and rely desperately on one another. Their story illustrates marriage's frustrations but also its strengths and mysteries: "They gave out no manual when you got married," Eileen thinks at one point, "no emergency kit with a flashlight for when the power went out. You had to feel your way around in the dark for the box of matches."
Thomas's novel is at times a cautionary tale, exhibiting the emotional and financial dangers of living beyond one's means, especially within a deeply imperfect health care system. But it's also genuinely moving, particularly as Ed's health crisis affects not only his own dignity but also his wife and son's sense of their selves and their lives together. It's likely impossible to get through Ed's letter to Connell near the end of the book without feeling at least the prick of incipient tears: "You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats," he instructs his son, who once struggled on the cross-country team. "You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not."
At the end of a life, by what will we be measured? This is a question that WE ARE NOT OURSELVES raises again and again, and one that readers will find themselves pondering long after tracing Eileen Tumulty's journey toward the answer.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 21, 2014
We Are Not Ourselves
- Publication Date: August 27, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 640 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster
- ISBN-10: 147675666X
- ISBN-13: 9781476756660