Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Review: "We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Eileen Tumulty grew up in Queens in the late 1940s and 1950s, raised by Irish immigrants in Queens. Eileen's father was a legend in their community, a larger than life figure whose counsel everyone in the neighborhood sought. Her mother faded into the spotlight, and was incapable of showing Eileen any real emotion. Alcohol was always plentiful in their lives, and the quality of her parents' marriage and the calmness of their home depended mostly on how much alcohol was consumed, and who was the one doing the drinking.

The dysfunction in her parents' lives forced Eileen to become independent and take charge at an early age. Intelligent and driven, she was still a woman growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, so while she dreamed of a career as a lawyer or doctor, she chose the road that was open to smart girls like her, nursing. And as she flourished in her studies, she was determined to have a life—and a marriage—better than her parents.

When she meets Ed Leary, a young scientist who is very different from the men she has met before, she believes she has found the man who will help her fulfill her dreams. Yet she quickly realizes that Ed's ambitions do not match hers—in fact, he is far more satisfied with the status quo than she understands. And as her career advances and she hopes for a home of their own, a haven to raise their son, Connell, she discovers that what she believes to be Ed's lack of ambition, his stubbornness, and inflexibility, actually mask a larger problem that will change all of their lives.

We Are Not Ourselves is a moving story about a family affected by challenge, and how it both brings them together and tears them apart. It's a book about wanting more than you have, as well as not wanting what you do have. It's also a story about the fragility and intensity of relationships between spouses, and between parent and child.

Matthew Thomas is a very talented writer. While I liked the book's plot at its core, I felt as if the story could have been told perhaps even more effectively in 300 or so pages rather than the 640 pages the book runs. The challenges that the Learys face take a very long while to be fully revealed; while I understand the importance of the background of Eileen's childhood as it served as a catalyst for all she longed for in adulthood, the book spent more time than it needed to there, and in laying out the details of the Learys' day-to-day lives. I found the last quarter or so of the book the most moving, and where Thomas' writing really hit its stride.

If you like sprawling family sagas, this is definitely a book for you. There is much to like about We Are Not Ourselves; it's just the payoff takes a very long time to reveal itself.

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