We Are Not Ourselves - Matthew   Thomas

I knew when I got this book from NetGalley that it was one of the summers’ much-awaited debut novels. However, this was not a light summer beach read. It took me more than a few nights to finish, because at times, it felt like an arduous thing I just had to get through. It was an emotional book, and it was unsparing in its graphic detail of families coming together and apart.

 

When I first started reading, I had flashbacks to Frank McCourt, and imagined it was going to be a hard-knock Irish story like his. When the story moved to slightly more psychological issues, it reminded me of The Glass Castle. I’m not sure why I believed this book had autobiographical details, but it seemed that the author had an unusually intense connection to his characters.

 

This book almost felt like two books (and maybe it could have been.) The first story would be Eileen Tumulty’s; who we meet at a young age. She has become caregiver to her parents, whose alcohol problems have changed the family dynamic. In this part of the story, I am rooting for Eileen, because I understand how desperately she wants to succeed. But at some point, Eileen becomes selfish, which, while understandable given her past, is still not excusable when she affects the lives of others. Eileen has big plans for the future with her husband, Ed. Unfortunately, she didn’t tell him this, and so she did not know he had no such ambitions. But Eileen goes full steam ahead with her plans despite his protests. Now I like a strong woman; but Eileen becomes an almost over the top striver. She wants the perfect life she has imagined, and she will get it no matter what the cost, financially or emotionally. Honestly, there are probably people like this, but I don’t have to like them. Worst of all, she is supposed to be an extraordinary nurse, and yet she cannot understand her husband has a problem until more than halfway through the book. I cannot imagine what the author intended with that – it did not make me feel smart, it made me think she was completely ignorant.

 

This is not a first person narrative, but the author gets into the heads of several of the characters, including young Connell, on his way to college. Connell walks with his father to the train he will take to the airport for college. (His mother, for some reason, cannot take a day off work to see her cherished child off to college). “He was having another of those inchoate ideas that he couldn’t entirely articulate to himself. He knew that these cloudy notions would come into sharper focus when he was away at college, where he would divest himself of the stultifying habits of personality and the false conclusions of biography and shine the light of pure reason on experience.” Yes, I get it, he went to Regis. But Really? When I was on my way to college, I am pretty sure I was thinking about classes, roommates, laundry and the dining hall. But I guess that’s just me.

 

So this is what I think of the book. It was a difficult, painful read, especially if you are anywhere near my age. But there were times that the writing transcended all of that, and approached an almost perfect beauty. There were scenes that moved me to tears. So yes, I did like this book. I just didn’t always love the characters. And it was just too long. Don’t get me wrong; I love a big thick book to read. But reading it unpaged on my kindle, it just wouldn’t end. And then, when I thought it was over, it just kept going. Despite this, I did appreciate that the author gave his characters a bit of redemption in the end. I could almost reconcile myself to liking them again.