We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas’ epic first novel, was 10 years in the making and, upon completion, the subject of a vigorous publishers’ bidding war. Readers will understand why.
Thomas’ novel is a 600-page Irish-American family saga that empathetically presents day-to-day life in the outer boroughs and suburbs of New York City during the late 20th century. At the story’s center is Eileen Leary, née Tumulty. Born in 1941 in Queens, Eileen is the daughter of recent Irish immigrants. As the novel cannily dramatizes, her fierce, upwardly mobile aspirations are formed in reaction to the difficult, working-class lives of her hard-working mother and her charismatic, hard-drinking father. Eileen, who, pragmatically, trains as a nurse, wants a different life. And Edward Leary, the young scientist she marries, seems to offer a path to that life.
But Ed is a sort of abstemious idealist. He turns down lucrative job offers because he believes the students he teaches at Bronx Community College deserve as good an education as students at NYU. He sees no need to move from their Queens home as the complexion of the neighborhood changes. And then, as their only child Connell becomes a teenager, Ed gives Eileen her biggest challenge yet.
Eileen is dedicated, responsible, loving, but also frustrated, sometimes angry and emotionally distant. Readers will no doubt differ on whether Eileen is noble or obtuse—or maybe both in the same moment. The possibility that all or none of these opinions about Eileen is correct is what makes We Are Not Ourselves such an interesting read.