Perhaps it was the several days shivering in the relentless air conditioning of the Javits Center that I reacted so strongly reading Matthew Thomas’s debut novel We Are Not Ourselves on the train ride home. At its core, the novel tells the story of one family, with the mother Eileen Tumulty at the center of it all. We read about her childhood, her parents’ alcoholism and her desire to leave behind the family’s old apartment in Irish working class Woodside Heights, Queens. She falls in love and marries neuroscientist Ed Leary, a man so unlike the men she’s known her entire life and who gives her a sense of safety and of promise. Problems arise as she realizes Ed lacks the ambition that will get them out of their working class apartment in Jackson Heights. Even after the birth of their son Connell, Ed remains devoted to teaching, turning down jobs that promise more status and more money. Eileen, who dreams of a living in Westchester County, in an attempt to change their circumstances manages to buy a somewhat dilapidated home in Bronxville on the Southern edge of Westchester.
After Eileen, Ed, and their son Connell move, a change occurs both in the story and in the tone of the novel. Ed for a while has appeared depressed, but it begins to manifest itself with fits and bursts of anger. Eileen meanwhile, seems determined to ignore it and pretend everything is normal. When Ed is finally diagnosed with early onset-Alzheimer’s this story of an unhappy family now becomes the dark and heart wrenching story of Ed’s slow decline. Thomas’s writing shines in this section and you begin to see how he carefully wove together the fabric of the family. Even with Eileen’s unhappiness and resentment of Ed’s lack of ambition, she continues to love him and it feels real. The poignant scenes as Ed’s mind and body broke down brought this reader to tears and yet I was also overwhelmed with the feelings of hope and respect for the family’s resiliency as Eileen and Connell endured it all and moved forward. Thomas has a gift for emotional truthfulness, writing characters with complex personalities and characters, that you can’t help falling a little in love with.