by Richard De Wyngaert
From the opening pages of Matthew Thomas’s debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, a sprawling multi generational family saga, the forces that profoundly shape Eileen Tumulty, the character around whom the story is centered, are manifest. The roots of her complicated relationship to the world and to herself unfold before us. Page by page. Day by day. Event by event.
Eileen endures a fraught childhood, spent largely in a Queens tenement taking care of her family’s home and her alcoholic parents--a larger than life father, with a gambling problem, and a timorous, shrinking mother, slowly decaying as she retreats further and further from the world.
We witness the reverberating lessons learned, and the smoldering aspirations, the daemons operating below the surface, that drive Eileen. She has big dreams: a better life. Eileen craves an opportunity to dramatically recalibrate who she is. She is painfully aware of the shackling nature of social stratification: determining who you are, and who you are not; where you are from, and from where you are not; where you should live, and where you should not.
Eileen desperately wants to be free of the DNA that binds her--longing to shake up the hand which she was dealt.
Eileen’s childhood was a consuming maelstrom: unending drama, unpredictability, and chaos. As an adult, she seeks harmony and forward movement. She needs order. Eileen sets out to build a life over which she exerts absolute control: She envisions every detail that will bring her the life she wants to live: her family, their economic trajectory, their neighborhood, and the way they are perceived by the world.
Eileen works hard. She becomes a nurse, often detached and clinical in her approach. She marries Ed, a brilliant, handsome, young scientist. Ed will deliver her to the promised land. She positions Connell, Ed and Eileen’s only child, within a promising social network. The course is set: a brilliant, sure-to-advance husband, and a capable son, one who will attend the right schools and have the right friends.
As a child, Eileen wanted: she will not want as an adult. As a child, Eileen was neglected: as an adult, she will attend assiduously to all things family. As a child, Eileen experienced scarcity: as an adult, she will save, and they will have more. As a child, Eileen’s social station was muddled and unclear.. As an adult, she will make sure they proceed correctly, ensuring they are perceived favorably by others.
The three of them, the Leary’s, will work hard and proceed according to plan. Together, with Ed’s piercing intellect, Eileen’s irrepressible drive, and Connell’s enhanced social standing, they will strategically assemble the building blocks of a “better life”. She will be the architect of the perfect milieu for herself, for Ed, and for Connell. The perfect family living the perfect life, preparing to cross the great divide.
And then Eileen’s life does what lives invariably do--it fails to cooperate. Eileen’s carefully drawn template is brushed aside. Their lives twist and morph and steer toward an unknown future.
The dominant themes change. The external props once clear and thought stable are elusive. They no longer provide cover. The unanticipated takes hold.
Ed changes. He no longer accepts what Eileen wants. He no longer wants to advance professionally. He doesn’t care about maintaining the correct social relationships. He does not aspire to make more money--but he certainly wants to spend less. Ed begins to act in ways that initially disarm, then frighten, and finally anger Eileen. Her carefully nurtured dream of prosperity and economic security is threatened. Ed appears to completely unravel. He shuts out Eileen and Connell, and withdraws into his own world. He is puzzling and bizarre and not interested in explaining why he has become almost monstrous.
Finally, we learn that Ed has Alzheimer's. Although clearly devastating, at least his diagnosis provides a label. Through this lens, Eileen can try to understand and fight a known enemy. She can also allow herself to love.
Eileen is a fighter. This is what she does best. Her love and her commitment to Ed now matter more than a fur coat and a house in Bronxville. She makes hard choices and sacrifices rooted in newly mined values. Her renewal is magnificently rendered-- underscoring growth, fortitude and exceptional compassion. Eileen’s core beliefs about how one lives one’s life transform and deepen.
Matthew Thomas has written a riveting, sweeping,masterpiece. We Are Not Ourselves elegantly captures a time and chronicles beautifully the Leary’s journey. Life came at Eileen with all her fury, unpredictably changing direction. Eileen pushed back-- moving forward bravely and honestly. She accepted and fought the challenges encountered and, quietly, lived a meaningful, inspiring life.