A 600 Page Book to Rip Your Heart Out

19 Aug

One of these days, I’m going to recommend an uplifting book. That day is not today.

We Are Not Ourselves is Matthew Thomas’ epic novel (some 620 pages) following one Irish-American family over the course of four decades. We first meet Eileen Tumulty in 1950s Queens, daughter to “Big Mike” Tumulty, an Industry man and pub favorite. We spend most of the book with her as Eileen O’Leary, wife of Edmund, mother of Connor, and pain-in-the-ass neighbor to many. Her story is one of a changing city, and her fatal flaw is her inability to see change as anything other than an impediment to her happiness, which is always one upgrade out of her reach. If only they had a child. If only Edmund would take that promotion. If only they lived in a big house in the suburbs. Then she would be happy. Then she would be Eileen, self-possessed woman in her own right.

The first ~75 pages of this book are tender and telling as we watch Eileen come to understand that there is a world outside her father’s five-block fiefdom. Next, we spend an awfully long time with Eileen and Edmund in the early days of their marriage, during which Eileen is largely unhappy because her husband is not nearly as interested in class mobility and conspicuous consumption as she is. These are still enjoyable, slice-of-life pages, but meandering enough that I had to go back to the NYT review of the book to remember where in the hell this story is going.

Turns out, Hell is more or less the O’Learys’ destination–Edmund develops early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and Eileen must come to terms with her new role as caregiver, breadwinner, and navigator of unthinkable terrain. What’s heartwrenching about this book is its painfully-true-to-life depictions of a brilliant mind and beloved man lost to a terrible disease; what’s beautiful about this book is the justice it does to the complexity of caregiving. For much of the book, Eileen isn’t exactly likable–she is painfully preoccupied with the perceptions of others and never fully rids herself of the idea that happiness is an item for sale in a place where “store” is spelled “shoppe.” Her cringe-worthy moments of overstep are many, and sometimes forced this reader to wonder whether Matthew Thomas willingly wrote her as such or if perhaps his Y-chromosome has confused him into thinking “shrill” is either appropriate or a compliment. Where Thomas falters in painting a full picture of this character as a young woman, he more than makes up for in the second half of the book: he deftly depicts a woman who is both selfishly human in her pursuit of the “finer life” and selflessly superhuman in her endless commitment to her husband during the most difficult portion of both their lives.

Certainly, Thomas could have pared this book down by about 150 pages–but that didn’t stop me from sitting in a corner of the couch during a beach weekend and reading the last 400 pages of this book over about 15 hours. Thomas’ prose is clean and uncomplicated, and he carefully guides readers to a conclusion that’s almost uplifting. Almost.

You might remember that I have a deep love for old people, and that a woman I really love had Alzheimer’s– if you, too, want more old people to live out their days happily, at home, and able to retell the hilarious story of her first date for the 1000th time, you can donate to the Alzheimer’s Association by clicking here.

The Kefs are headed out on vacation next week, so I’ll be reading a ton– on the list: Homegoing: A Novel, Running: A Love Story, The Underground Railroad, and Underground Airlines. What are you reading?

Other books I’ve read this year:

Two Books to Blow Your Hair Back

A Book I Loved and One I Sort of Liked

A Book I Read, a Book I Dropped, and  a Book I am Dying for you to Read


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