Title: We Are Not Ourselves
Author: Matthew Thomas
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: August 19, 2014
Synopsis from Goodreads:
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.
This was a story of unparalleled sadness: the dream of a better life unfulfilled by the inescapable challenges of aging and a breaking of the mind. It’s a story of a lost future, or a changed future. Although the Leary family strives for one life, it is not in their hands for them to end up the way that they dream. They are a family out of sink with one another, a divide that grows greater as they struggle to cope with incurable illness and mental deterioration.
I found the son, Connell, to be the most interesting character. His thoughts and perceptions through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood are extraordinarily complex. As a teen, he struggles between his love of learning and his desire to fit in. He struggles mentally and physically under the weight of peer pressure. He is exposed to drugs and sexuality, neither of which he is ready for or comfortable with, but he craves belonging and so he doesn’t run from it. He drifts further and further from his parents, feeling shame at close, familial contact and affection, but unable to find affection in romantic relationships. As Connell develops, his perception of relationships continues to skew. He doesn’t understand how to relate to his struggling family and he can’t bridge the barrier to demonstrate his love for them. The same goes for his romantic relationships. He proposes to one of his first serious girlfriends at the age of nineteen, not fully comprehending the “normal” (if such a thing can be said) progression of a romantic relationship. He suffers from a lack of intimacy and cannot fathom a way to demonstrate his feelings of love and attachment.
The story of these characters swept me away completely. Thomas’ style opens the Leary’s lives raw for the reader, exposing the ugly truths of family relationships, the contemplations of love, and the devastation of disease. The story itself does run long after a while. I felt as though there were some issues with pacing. The early parts of the story take us through Eileen’s childhood and her first interactions with her husband, Ed. I felt so rushed during these chapters. Although it’s important to know about where these characters come from in order to know why they want what they want later in life, these earlier chapters didn’t really affect the overall plot. Because of this rushed feeling, I could never understand why Eileen and Ed loved one another. Their relationship in the beginning felt quite glossed over and so their marriage to me didn’t fully make sense. The pacing evens out later on as the characters reach middle age and it was smooth sailing from there in terms of plot and character development.
A very moving story overall. It tackles difficult and depressing topics, so be forewarned. It’s left me feeling pretty melancholic for the moment, but I thoroughly enjoyed it overall. We Are Not Ourselves is an honest and open story with compelling and complex characters. I definitely recommend it!