We Are Not Ourselves, the debut novel by Matthew Thomas, tells the story of the struggles and triumphs of several generations of an Irish-American family as they travel through last half of the twentieth century and into our modern time. But this description may make it seem as if we are getting a sweeping look at a large boisterous immigrant family – when what really end up with is an intimate look at the life of Eileen Leary, the daughter, mother, wife, nurse at the center of it all…as well as the struggle she faces in her own small family and in their own uniquely personal way.
At 600 pages, the book is no small read, though the paragraphs and events whiz by. We see Eileen’s childhood days as she dreams of a way to get past her turbulent upbringin, dreaming of a better life by making her way into the American upper class, on the arm of her handsome and smart scientist husband, Ed. Her husband, however, fails to meet her expectations but they continue to float slightly upward due to her hard work as a career nurse and her dreams of more.
The tone shifts a bit half way through when a dark surprise halts that trajectory that just started to seem real, including the new, bigger house in the suburbs. Eileen continues to try and use her smarts and willpower to create a normal experience for her son, Connell, as he grows up, while she reckons with what has become of her husband. About half way through the story, Connell himself gets a voice as he inherits the family legacy and starts to try and figure out just what he has in his hands.
This book gets under your skin. The characters are more real than many I have lately read. The story of one family set against the back drop of the myth of the American Dream. I felt very connected to Eileen, as a mother, wife and nurse myself with a husband and only one son. Her struggles felt real and there many moments in which I shared her sadness deeply. The simple prose in the novel make it easy to read, but do not dismiss this one as lightweight. Certain passages where so moving while spare in the text, almost poetic, to even get a bit sentimental. While one might argue that the book needed some editing down, especially in the first half (for example, a very minor character returns in the back half that I had so little memory of I had to flip back and search hard to find why I should care about this scene), I am genuinely glad to have been a part of this messy family for a few weeks.