We Are Not Ourselves Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
Destined to be a classic, this "powerfully moving" (Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding) multigenerational debut novel of an Irish-American family is nothing short of a "masterwork". (Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End).
Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on whether guests are over and how much alcohol has been consumed.
When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she’s found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn’t aspire to the same, ever bigger, stakes in the American Dream.
Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house, but as years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. An inescapable darkness enters their lives, and Eileen and Ed and their son, Connell, try desperately to hold together a semblance of the reality they have known, and to preserve, against long odds, an idea they have cherished of the future.
Through the Learys, novelist Matthew Thomas charts the story of the American Century, particularly the promise of domestic bliss and economic prosperity that captured hearts and minds after WWII. The result is a riveting and affecting work of art; one that reminds us that life is more than a tally of victories and defeats, that we live to love and be loved, and that we should tell one another so before the moment slips away.
Epic in scope, heroic in character, masterful in prose, We Are Not Ourselves heralds the arrival of a major new talent in contemporary fiction.
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|Listening Length||20 hours and 51 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||August 19, 2014|
|Publisher||Simon & Schuster Audio|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #156,403 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#1,623 in Fiction Sagas
#2,812 in Family Life Fiction (Audible Books & Originals)
#6,064 in Literary Fiction (Audible Books & Originals)
Top reviews from the United States
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By the time she meets Ed Leary, Eileen Tumulty has already decided what she wants out of life and that is to escape from the Woodside, Queens neighborhood where she grew up. As the daughter of hard-working, but hard-drinking Irish parents in a loveless marriage, Eileen spent most of her childhood propping up her mother and running the household.
Once married, Eileen’s dreams of an elegant home seem within reach. She is a successful nurse. Ed is a brilliant research scientist and she can already envision where his career path will take them. A baby boy, Connell, completes the picture. What Eileen doesn’t foresee is Ed’s resistance to change. He’s happy where he is, first as a tireless and hyper-focused researcher and then as a professor at a community college, intent on making his mark right there.
This is a story in itself, full of complicated family dynamics and marital conflict, but when Ed is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the Leary family changes into something else. Once again, the burden falls on Eileen to step up and make key family decisions, including the most important one, how long to keep Ed at home.
I was drawn into We Are Not Ourselves because of this story set-up. Thomas has a simple, sometimes clipped, but often elegant writing style. He includes a lot of side characters and scenes, however, which plump the book up to its hefty 623 pages. It’s hard not to question these digressions, including a good deal of baseball references, most appreciated by fans, but extraneous to others. Side plots, such as Connell’s stint as a doorman and Eileen’s visits to a series of cult-like therapy sessions, have only loose connections to the plot. In addition, a long rant about the American healthcare system seems contrived and preachy.
Despite its length, the main characters, especially Eileen and Connell, remain undeveloped, which makes it hard to identify with them. Because the reader knows little else about Eileen’s emotions, her drive for a better life merely comes across as selfish, cold and judgmental. Connell is equally self-absorbed and unable to do his part. It’s tempting to give him the teenager’s pass for being irresponsible, but there’s just not enough in his character to warrant it. Thomas leaves a frustrating gap between all three characters and when he does bring them together, their emotional connections are hard to believe.
Ed is the center of the story and is the most developed character. Even before his diagnosis, it’s easier to sympathize with him when Eileen tries to push him around. That also makes it easy to dislike her and Connell. Maybe that’s the whole point of the book’s construction, to force the reader to focus on Ed. And perhaps that’s why Eileen and Connell are such flat characters. I guess I just wanted to like someone in the story. The only one who came close was Ed.
Criticism aside, I did enjoy the book and there were many moving sections and telling dialogue, where only a few words make a great point, one of Thomas’s obvious talents. Here’s a great example.
When Ed receives his diagnosis, right away, Eileen says they need to get a second opinion. Ed’s response says it all, revealing a keen sense of self-awareness:
"We don’t need a second opinion. He’s the second opinion."
Another favorite scene is when Ed and Eileen are at Macy’s. Ed is intent on buying her a dress for Christmas. He wants to surprise her, but Eileen has to help. His ability to communicate has already begun to crumble, but he puts his words just right:
"'I like you in blue,’ he said. The simplicity of the declaration put an ache in her chest. He directed no animosity at her for having rescued him in the transaction. He seemed to feel only a naked desire to please. He was being stripped of pride, of ego, ruined, destroyed. He was also being softened."
Scenes in the nursing home are equally moving, giving the reader insight into the meaning of Ed’s limited words, some of them heartbreaking. I think this is the strongest part of the book. And the most beautiful part of the book is Ed’s letter to Connell. While a reminder that there are no guarantees in life is nothing new, Ed has the best advice for his son:
"What matters most right now is that you hear how much I want you to live your life and enjoy it. I don’t want you to be held back by what’s happened to me."
A good message and Connell will try to take it to heart.
“She would have to have a talk with Brenda about the dryer sheets she always found in the machine and the empty detergent boxes she ended up throwing out herself. These little quality-of-life infractions added up to a diminishment of her happiness on the planet.”
And yet – as the novel continues – her petty-mindedness is gradually and the demonstrably overshadowed by the ways in which she makes the hard choices, the examples of the numerous times she chooses love and people over things or convenience. She seems to start to understand herself a bit better as she moves through the phases of her life.
When she finally gets the house she’s planned for, dreamed of – she sits in the driveway and thinks - “She wanted the next phase of her life to remain forever potential and the rest of her things to stay in the truck.” She dreams more of things the way they might be than the actual things.
Eileen is an incredibly strong woman. She works and fights for what she wants, and more importantly, for those she loves. When her husband Ed is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – she deals with the diagnosis, and later, with the deterioration of the man she loves, with a strength, kindness, and patience that few people would be able to muster. And yet – there is still that other side of her personality that never really goes away.
“It’s the true Alzheimer’s,” she said, with something like pride at the thought that if her husband were to be destroyed by a degenerative neurological disorder, it would be the undiluted article, the aristocrat of brain diseases.”
Her thoughts and feelings are incredibly forceful and intense – so much so that many times she is unable to let them out. In one scene, her husband and son are hugging just after they all learn about Ed’s diagnosis. Her son, Connell, invites her into the hug, but “The idea of a group hug embarrassed her and she couldn’t comply.”
So much of Eileen is about the external. How one is seen in the world, what other people think, what one’s possessions say about him or her. And yet, her life turns out to be more about what’s inside. She, who dreams of the perfect, idyllic life does not shy away from the most grueling of circumstances. Without complaint and without much serious thought of giving up, she cares for her husband until long past the time when most people would have buckled.
If this book was about almost any other subject – I would say the level of detail, the descriptions that seem to go on and on would be too much. But Alzheimer’s – the gradual disappearance of one’s memory and identity – needs this minute step-by-step depiction in order for the reader to have some level of understanding of how cruel and unremitting it is. Ed’s fight to hold on and Eileen’s determination to be with him during every step of that fight is an remarkable story – one that the reader cannot help but admire.
Even with her faults – by the end of the book – Eileen proves herself to be a rare soul. And as I finished this, as hard as it was to read at times, I could only think of those rare souls out there either battling this disease or those loved ones watching the battle being lost.
Top reviews from other countries
It has no pace or continuity. It's hard to fit together coherently everything we find out about the main characters and so the empathy so crucial to our support for them fails to form.
There are good set-pieces, narrated with talent and flair in places, but they seem stitched together.
The result was it took me months to finish it. I then learnt that the author spent ten years writing the thing and that explained why it felt so sterile.
I have exactly the same memories of 'Something Happened' by Joseph Heller which took him just as long to write.