Thursday, August 28, 2014

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas


We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas
Simon & Schuster, 2014
640 pages
source: Netgalley (via publisher for review consideration)

Summary (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.

Through the Learys, novelist Matthew Thomas charts the story of the American Century, particularly the promise of domestic bliss and economic prosperity that captured hearts and minds after WWII. The result is a riveting and affecting work of art; one that reminds us that life is more than a tally of victories and defeats, that we live to love and be loved, and that we should tell each other so before the moment slips away.

Epic in scope, heroic in character, masterful in prose, We Are Not Ourselves heralds the arrival of a major new talent in contemporary fiction.

My thoughts:

We Are Not Ourselves is a beautifully written, profoundly real, and emotionally devastating novel. I finished the book weeks ago, yet it continues to weigh heavily on my mind.

This is the debut novel everyone is talking about. It has been described as everything from a family saga to the new Great American Novel. Since its focus is on a single family unit, I wouldn't necessarily call it a saga, but it definitely has all the characteristics of  a great American novel.

We Are Not Ourselves  begins with an Irish immigrant couple in Queens and their only child, Eileen. She takes center stage early on. What follows is basically her story - her yearnings, struggles and strivings for a better life, her pursuit of the American Dream, and the obstacles she encounters along the way.

Eileen pins her hopes on scientist Ed Leary. They marry and have a son, Connell (named for the author of the novel Mrs. Bridge, which Eileen encounters during pregnancy). Eileen pushes her family onward and upward, but it's obvious Ed does not share her aspirations. He takes comfort in routine and resists change.

As Ed enters his fifties, he becomes withdrawn, easily confused, and even more adamant in his insistence on maintaing the status quo. Eileen is painfully slow in figuring out what's happening to her husband, but most readers will certainly guess the true nature of Ed's problem. Once it is spelled out and his illness is labeled, the novel becomes sadder and increasingly difficult to read... especially for the reader who has experienced similar life events.

In the second half of the novel, the family comes to terms with Ed's illness and attempts to move forward. Connell, who had been in the background, begins to play a larger role. None of the characters are especially likable, but they all ring true. Small human dramas play out in their everyday lives. It is interesting that the author chose to keep Ed's own story and experiences out of the narrative.

Also of note, I took great delight in the author's vocabulary and word choice. I will certainly read whatever Matthew Thomas writes next.

Bottom line:  I was totally consumed by We Are Not Ourselves and do not remember the last time a book had such a profound emotional impact on me.

My rating:

40 comments:

  1. Sounds very much like a book I would like and I see our library has it on order so will be watching out for it.

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    1. Cat - I hope you get a chance to read it... such a wonderful book!

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  2. I felt the same way. I read it on a 7 hour car trip and could not stop reading...

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    1. Patty - Once I reached the halfway mark, I could do nothing but read. This was a totally consuming novel!

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  3. I just ordered it on audio. I can't wait.

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    1. Sandy - I just checkout out the audio version at audible and it has a 4.5 star rating. Can't wait to hear what you think!

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  4. I've been on the library hold list for this ever since I heard about it--now I am even more anxious to get my hands on it! I love reading a book that lingers with you after you finish it. Nice review!

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    1. Bookmammalmusings - Thanks. This is a book that grabs hold of you and won't let you go even after you're finished reading. Very powerful stuff!

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  5. I've heard amazing things about this book! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'll definitely have to look for the book and other books by the author.

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    1. Katherine - This is a debut novel. Can't wait to see what he writes next!

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  6. I absolutely loved this one, too, and still think about it weeks later as well. When I first noticed how many pages were in the novel, I was filled with a little dread, as usually long novels bog down for me at some point. Not this one! You said it so well...and it is definitely one of those that can go down as a "great American novel." Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. Laurel-Rain Snow - I was initially taken aback by the length, too, but it was actually one of the quickest 600+ page novels I've ever read.

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  7. Barely skimmed this because I have it on my list. I'll come back after I finish.

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    1. Beth F - You're in for a treat, but brace yourself...

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  8. JoAnn, I've got this one on my shelf too. I've been putting it off because of its length (and I'm way behind in my reading!). I'll have to get right on it after this wonderful review!

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    1. Peggy Ann - I think you'll be surprised by how quickly it reads... not like most other chunksters!

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  9. Everyone says this is a whopper of a read. Emotionally devastating, is probably what keeps me from reading it, only because I feel as if I have to find the right time to fit it in.

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    1. Ti - It is truly emotionally devastating, no way to get around it. I think finding the right time to read it is important.

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  10. I feel like it's been a long time since a book affected me this way! It's a wonderful experience, isn't it, even if it's not an overwhelmingly happy one.

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    1. Audrey - Me, too... I'd have to go back through years of my reading lists to find something this powerful.

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  11. You make this sound very enticing!

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    1. Diane - A truly amazing novel, for sure!

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  13. I have the arc of this, gotta find time to read. Lots of good chatter on it.

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    1. Anita - This is definitely worth making the time!

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  14. I spied this book at the library but it was grabbed by another person perusing the titles. Since then I have read such good reviews for this debut novel. I need to place a hold on it now!

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  15. A 5-star epic! This sounds deep. And, I can sense some good movie materials. ;) Speaking of the character Ed's illness, I'll be heading to Toronto soon for TIFF and Still Alice is on my list of selections.

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    1. Arti - Leave it to you to comment on this angle, lol! This is one of my top two books this year... either this one or The Interestings.

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  16. I had this one from NetGalley and then it expired before I could read it. I was so frustrated and even more now that I see how great it is!

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    1. Lisa - That is frustrating! I'd definitely recommend borrowing it from your library.

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  17. I am so happy that you loved this - I have the audio edition on its way to me to review.

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    1. Carrie - This is wonderful, but emotionally difficult. Can't wait to hear what you think of the audio!

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  18. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this debut novel JoAnn. I've read many other positive comments on it. If this is not already on my To Read list, I'm going to add it.

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    1. Pat - This is one novel that's not to be missed!

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  19. Great review! I agree with most everything you said about this book...it was incredibly emotional. I don't think saga is the right word for it...it was more the story of a family in heartache for me. I did think the beginning section about Eileen's childhood dragged out too long and didn't have much bearing on the real story...which was the story of Eileen and Ed and their family.

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    1. Sarah - You're right. I don't think Eileen's childhood had much bearing on the story at all. I certainly didn't mind reading it, but now that I've had more time to think about, it really wasn't necessary. Maybe the book could have been just 500 pages! ;-)

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  20. I finally got the audio from my library, but it isn't licensed to play on Apple devices, so I won't be able to listen to it on my Nano. I loaded it on to my phone (Samsung Galaxy S5), so I will be able to listen, but it won't be as convenient. With that said, I can't wait. I'm ready for a 5 star book!

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    1. Les - Just remember, it's emotionally harrowing but so, so good!

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