Published by Simon & Schuster on August 19th 2014
Genres: historical fiction
We Are Not Ourselves was a very hard book to rate. On one hand I love the historical aspects of it, the writing made it come alive and the characters seemed incredibly real. On the other hand I really disliked the characters and the…plot? I’m hesitant to call it a plot because I feel like a plot inspires visions of a rollercoaster of emotions and the storyline was very linear.
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.
When we first meet Eileen as a child, I feel bad for her but she seems like a strong person. She seems resigned to her fate but motivated to change it when she can. I know that they say you grow up to be like your parents, but I feel like she was so hyper aware of how her parents were and how much she didn’t want to be like them, that it was odd that she grew up to be like them. Maybe it was because she was so focused on her financial stability and outward appearances that she didn’t nurture her caring side, or maybe it’s just a sign of those times, but her attitude just didn’t sit right with me. Especially her interactions with her son. A big part of my dislike for this book was because of Eileen, and although that means I likely wouldn’t recommend the book, the fact that Thomas’ writing evoked such strong feelings from me means it was written well.
Like I said before, the plot wasn’t much of a plot. From the outset I kind of guessed what was going to happen. When Ed started to decline and Eileen basically out and out ignored it because she was too focused on everyone judging them on it, so she didn’t get Ed the help he needed, I wanted to reach into the book and shake her. I get that this is in a different time, so appearances mattered a lot more (or I assume they did), but her attitude around the whole situation just frustrated me. She spent the entire book being miserable, judgy, and snarky towards everyone when if she’d put caring for her family above everything else, she could have had a much better time. Which again, the fact that I got so annoyed at her as a character means the book was well written. Not every character has to be loveable.
So all in all, would I reread We Are Not Ourselves? No. Would I recommend it? Probably not. Do I still consider it a decent read? Begrudgingly.
She tried to imagine what it would feel like to have always been alone. She decided that being alone to begin with would be easier than being left alone. Everything would be easier than that.
“Don’t ever love anyone,” her mother said, picking the papers up and sliding them into the bureau drawer she’d kept her ring in. “All you’ll do is break your own heart.”