WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, by Matthew Thomas, is not a book that I would normally have picked up. But there was something about this book that called out to me….
This is a big book in more ways than one. It’s a tome of a novel; over 600 pages. I read that it is one of the Big books for fall. That means they have high expectations for it. And so they should. And so do I!
I’ve never read a more in-depth and realistic picture of the American middle class; it pretty much covers the twentieth century. To say this is a dynamic novel of the American dream is an understatement.
This is a character- driven novel, sweeping in scope. Thomas is the king of detail. He leaves no stone unturned. I was so compelled to keep reading this amazing novel because I felt like I knew these people. I kept willing them all to persevere.
WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, starts out in 1951, in Queens, New York. Eileen Tumulty is in grade school. Yet, it is she who takes care of her Irish working-class, alcoholic parents. And she begins to aspire to something much higher even at this young age.
The story begins with Eileen being led by the hand to the bar where her father spends most evenings after picking her up from school. At Doherty’s Bar, Eileen’s father was larger than life; his body filled the doorway and his presence hushed the occupants. Eileen always ran ahead to make sure her dad’s bar stool was unoccupied and ready for him. Once her father was settled in, Eileen sat herself down at one of the creaky tables up front. There she sat, doing her homework in her pleated skirt with her collared blouse, listening in to hear the conversations.
Just try to imagine a parent taking a child into a bar nowadays. Good lord. But I know people who were subjected to this very thing, time after time as youngsters.
Eileen adds the Leary to her name when she marries Ed, the love of her life. The man who is going to help her rise above all that came before. But even though Ed has opportunities that reach far above the stars, he chooses to teach instead of work in the field that would make him a very rich man, and, ultimately, make her a rich woman. So we begin to see a dousing of the fire that burns in Eileen’s eyes.
We watch the lives of Eileen and Ed, and then their son Connell, slowly unravel. We wonder what is happening even as we can not help but know deep in our hearts.
I have to say that this is an epic story of love and devotion as much as a detailed account of striving for the American Dream. It also brings Eileen Leary into the realm of one of the strongest women in contemporary fiction, today. We live with Eileen for six decades, and we come to know and care about her, intimately.
This is an important novel. But it’s not for the faint of heart. And as much as I did not want to read the horrors of this story, I could not put it down. I know people who are dealing with this horror even as I type this review. My hat goes off to them all.
The writing is absolutely brilliant. It is impossible to believe this book is a debut. I am looking forward to reading an interview with Matthew Thomas, or hearing one. I’ll be thinking about this amazing new novel for a long, long, time. I just know that this is a stunning major new talent that I will be keeping my eye on for a long time.
It speaks volumes when the publisher says that WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, by Matthew Thomas, is,” quite simply and without hyperbole, the best novel Simon and Schuster will publish this year.”
I am so lucky to have received a finished hardcover of WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, by Matthew Thomas. I will be bringing it along on my lectures this year, and proudly so! Thanks Simon & Schuster!