We Are Not Ourselvesby Matthew Thomas
Eileen is only a young girl when we meet her at the beginning of the novel, but this book chronicles almost all of her life. From the early moments, that are reminiscent of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, through the ups and downs of her marriage, this is Eileen’s story. As a young Irish American girl, Eileen has made her way in the world alongside her husband Ed. We follow multiple generations in her family, racing through the years alongside Eileen. When her life takes an unexpected turn, we are right there with her, baffled and overwhelmed by her new circumstances.
The strange thing about this novel is that it’s about everything and nothing all at once. There’s no massive plot twists or developments. Instead we follow these characters, slowly, through their lives. The struggles, emotions, moments of joy and frustration, we are there for all of it. Sometimes those details feel mundane, other times they make the novel more intimate. We are seeing every part of their lives laid bare.
It reminded me a bit of “Freedom” and “The Corrections”, except for the fact that I hate those books and I enjoyed this one. Where those struck me as condescending and whiny, this one felt raw and realistic.
The thing I loved about these characters is that at times I hated them. That might not seem like it makes a lot of sense but can you think of anyone you’re truly close to that you haven’t been furious with at some point? These are characters with depth, characters that make selfish decisions at times and at others they sacrifice the world for their family. They aren’t one-dimensional. It's much easier to see yourself in someone so flawed than someone who's perfect and easy to love.
The language in the novel is so gorgeous. Thomas writes in a way that makes you feel the pain and struggle and tenderness of every scene. He chronicles their lives in such intricate detail, including failed friendships, arguments between spouses, disappointment in a parent and so much more. It’s these everyday moments that make up the unique fabric of a family’s world. He breathes life in the characters through humiliating thoughts that can cross one's mind in private or the aching desire for something you can’t explain.
BOTTOM LINE: This is not an easy book to read. It’s heartbreaking in a way that’s at times too familiar for anyone who has dealt with illness in their family. The Leary family could be any family and it’s that element of universality that makes their story so moving. It’s not an uncommon struggle, but the author makes the tedious details of their life seem so important and recognizable and there’s a beauty in that relatability.
“Maybe your imagination stopped at the boundaries that contained it.”
“Empathy. He hadn't always had it. It was a muscle you had to develop and then keep conditioned.”