The title grabbed me in an airport bookstore and despite the novel’s heft (620 pages) I excitedly took it on. “We Are Not Ourselves” had such a familiar ring to me, though not from the voice of Shakespeare’s King Lear, whom Matthew Thomas references, but rather, my mother. “We’re just not ourselves today,” rang in my ears, as a description of the off-kilter feeling that we’ve somehow ended up where we didn’t expect to be. The haunting phrase is the skillfully rendered undercurrent of the book.
Rarely does a first novel get the accolades Thomas’s 2014 book has garnered. It seems that others find the story within as deeply touching as I did. It’s a surprisingly quick-moving and entertaining read for a book that covers the rather unremarkable life of Irish-American Eileen Tumulty, her husband and son from 1951 to 2000.
There are many similarities between Thomas’s life and those of his characters. He tells reviewers he worked on it for ten years—writing most of it longhand in a notebook—while holding a job as a high school English teacher. It was obviously a very personal endeavor. There is no other way to explain the incredible level of emotional truth he is able to convey.
Eileen’s Irish background shapes her young life in the borough of Queens. Her mother, who refuses to become an American citizen, stays close to her relatives, as they emigrate to the U.S., and houses whole families for months at a time in their small apartment. Eileen’s charismatic father holds court at the local bar each night with his pals but he is the only source of joy in her life.
Eileen plans for a more refined life in her future, one more suited to New York’s classier suburbs than the teeming streets of Queens. She’s thrilled to meet and marry Ed Leary, a brilliant but unambitious scientist and college professor, hoping he’ll be her key to getting out of their cramped apartment. His indifference keeps them right where they are.
The realities of life as a hardworking nurse with a husband who refuses two promotions in order to continue teaching at a community college, especially after their son Connell is born, frustrate Eileen. Her dissatisfaction with her daily life and her rigid husband consumes her life. But then Ed starts acting strangely. It begins as “torpor,” slides into depression then shows as confusion, and before long their world shifts seismically when he is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
These were also the circumstances of Matthew Thomas’s life, so he gently leads readers through the overwhelming effect this has on the family—the mixture of stress, anger and guilt Eileen feels and the looming disorientation young Connell experiences. Yet it’s not a depressing book. Eileen and her son transcend the circumstances, slowly and realistically and Thomas gives us a wonderfully-crafted, satisfying ending.