Friday, August 15, 2014

Review of We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas


We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: August 19, 2014
Length: 640 pages
Source: Simon & Schuster via NetGalley

From the Publisher's Summary: 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 the years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. An escapable 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.

Note: I have used the publisher's summary here to keep myself from unintentionally spoiling anything. Too many reviewers have divulged one of the key plot elements of the novel, the source of the "darkness" that enters the Learys' lives. I think it is better for readers to discover this on their own, as the author chooses to reveal it. I recommend that those who wish to read the book avoid reading too many reviews or summaries.

My Thoughts: We Are Not Oursevles seems to be one of the most buzzed-about late summer releases this year. This debut novel, written by an English teacher at a New York City high school, launched a bidding war among publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. Reportedly, Matthew Thomas received $1 million for the North American rights to his novel. The strong advance praise from early reviewers can't fail to attract the attention of book lovers. So I jumped at the chance to read a pre-release copy of the book.

And the novel IS, indeed, a powerful and moving book. My guess is that it will strike gold with the book-buying public because it will appeal to readers of both popular and more literary fiction. It's a sweeping, multi-generational family saga with a plot that makes you want to keep turning the pages. At the same time, Thomas addresses big, thought-provoking topics: why we want more than we have, the nature of our responsibilities to others, and what it truly means to love someone "for better or for worse."

The character of Eileen is richly observed and authentic. While quite often I couldn't like Eileen, it was easy to feel a deep connection to her as she struggles, first to meet the expectations of her parents, and then of herself, while life sends unexpected obstacles her way. The pursuit of upward mobility so worshipped by her Irish-American working-class family becomes, for Eileen, a trap. Her struggles, in some ways, mirror those of many people from her generation.

Thomas offers an intimate depiction of Eileen and Ed's marriage, and this was a highlight of the novel for me. What does it mean to be linked forever to a person who doesn't share your dream? When the "darkness" creeps into their lives, Eileen's fierce commitment to Ed is surprising and deeply poignant.

I do think We Are Not Oursevles has some flaws. The novel started out very slowly for me; there is a lot of exposition that feels heavy and clunky. Thomas meanders through Eileen's childhood and early adulthood before coming to the heart of the novel and revealing the central challenge the Learys must face. Some of this becomes tedious; a few times I felt my interest level waning. The real power of Thomas's story comes in the second half of the novel, and I would have structured the book to emphasize this earlier. Even Thomas's prose improved, I felt, as the novel progressed, as if he saved the best writing for the most intense and compelling parts of the story.

Although it takes far too long to get there, in the end the book packs a devastating and emotional punch that makes it all worth while. I'd challenge anyone to finish the We Are Not Ourselves without feeling deeply affected. I recommend it for readers who like stories of complex family dynamics. I would rate the novel about a 3.75 out of 5 stars, and round up to 4.

I received a pre-release copy of this book from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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