Saturday, January 17, 2015

we are not ourselves by matthew thomas - a book review

this fictitious epic spans sixty years, telling the life story of eileen tumulty.

in 1951 we find nine-year eileen, the daughter of irish immigrants now living in queens. the book walks us through eileen's childhood marred by her mother's alcoholism, the young adult years marked by her fierce ambition and determination to escape her station and finally an adulthood filled with a constant unsettledness, marriage, difficulty getting pregnant and, most profoundly, the harsh realities of her husband's early on-set alzheimer's disease.

this is not a happy book but it is an honest depiction of one woman's life. there are definitely joyful moments but the hard times seem to outnumber the good. i found the trials thrust upon eileen to be depressing but the dignity with which she walked through them was inspiring. there's a quote in the book, "it was time now to be smart - smart and strong. she wondered whether she'd ever have a chance to be foolish and weak" (page 513). this is eileen's essence; she always had to tend to the needs of others.

on the other hand there were times when eileen was foolish. there is a sentence on page 417 that describes eileen's college-age son, connell. it says, "the problem was, he didn't know how to be anybody but himself, and he wasn't sure what that self was yet, so he studied other people for traits to grab and fashion a personality out of." i found this sentence to be exactly true for myself at the same age. isn't that what most of us do to some extent in our twenties?

that sentence also defines eileen, except she was almost unforgivingly slow in discovering who she was so that even in her adult years she was still on a quest to be someone other than herself. the way she went about that was to have more - a bigger house, a nicer neighborhood, a better car, a mink coat. her inability to be content irritated me. she possessed such great qualities - a loyalty to her frail husband, a tireless work ethic, she was good friend - but deep down inside she never felt good enough. i had sympathy for her; she's had to deal with a lot in her life.

i guess that's a good recommendation for this book, right?

the author created a character and wrote her story beautifully so as to illicit a range of my emotions (sympathies, sadness, anger) even though i didn't always like her as a person. i'd say that's what good writing is supposed to do and matthew thomas has done it well.

without revealing too much, there is a poignant scene at the end of the book where, at age 59 (if i've done my math correctly) eileen finally "gets it". this realization unfolds in such a lovely way. i found myself, for her sake, wishing it had happened sooner. in this one scene, with just one sentence, eileen redeems herself in my eyes and i was able to walk away from her story feeling hopeful.

but better late than never.

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