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Summary and book reviews of We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves

by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves
  • Critics' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    Aug 2014, 640 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2015, 640 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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About this Book

Book Summary

Epic in scope, heroic in character, and masterful in prose, We Are Not Ourselves is a multigenerational portrait of the Irish American Leary family.

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 each other 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.

7

She began to look forward to the day when she would take another man's name. It was the thoroughgoing Irishness of Tumulty that bothered her, the redolence of peat bogs and sloppy rebel songs and an uproar in the blood, of a defeat that ran so deep it reemerged as a treacherous conviviality.

She'd grown up around so many Irish people that she'd never had to think much about the fact that she was Irish. On St. Patrick's Day, when the city buzzed like a family reunion, she felt a tribal pride, and whenever she heard the plaintive whine of bagpipes, she was summoned to an ancient loyalty.

When she got to college, though, and saw that there was a world in which her father didn't hold much currency, she began to grasp the crucial role the opinions of others played in the settling of one's own prospects. "Eileen" she couldn't get rid of, but if she could join it to something altogether different, she might be able to enjoy her Irishness again, even feel safe enough to...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Thomas begins his novel with two epigraphs, one from Stanley Kunitz and one from King Lear. Did the epigraphs inform your reading of the novel? How did they relate to each of the members of the Leary family? Why do you think Thomas chose to use the phrase We Are Not Ourselves, taken from the King Lear epigraph, as the title of his novel?

  2. When Eileen is growing up, she's aware that "men were always quieting down around her father" (pp. 3–4), whom "everybody called…Big Mike" (p. 6). Describe Big Mike. Why does he command so much respect from the outside world? Does this influence Eileen's behavior? In what ways? How does Big Mike's legend compare with the reality of what he is like when he is at home with Eileen ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Through the lens of one all-American family, Thomas has crafted a profound meditation on the meaning of success, the joys and challenges of marriage, and the lure (and traps) of the American dream. Eileen Leary, with all her strengths and weaknesses, leaps off the page.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review Members Only (654 words).

Media Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

Despite its epic size and aspirations, the novel is underpopulated and often underwritten, a quality that does make its richer moments stand out while stoking the appetite for more of those in fewer pages.

Library Journal

Starred Review. The debut author has created a memorable character in Eileen, who is both intelligent and clueless, focusing on her ideals and fantasies and attempting vainly to make reality conform to her aspirations. The depiction of Ed's illness is realistic, powerful, artistically delivered, and occasionally humorous, and readers will be drawn in."

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Thomas's emotional truthfulness combines with the novel's texture and scope to create an unforgettable narrative.

Author Blurb Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding
We Are Not Ourselves is a powerfully moving book, and the figure of Eileen Leary - mother, wife, daughter, lover, nurse, caretaker, whiskey drinker, upwardly mobile dreamer, retrenched protector of values - is a real addition to our literature.

Author Blurb Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
It's all here: how we live, how we love, how we die, how we carry on. And Thomas does it with the epic sweep and small pleasures of the very best fiction. It's humbling and heartening to read a book this good.

Author Blurb Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children
Okay, straight out, this novel is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

Reader Reviews
Judy G

Requires patient reader
At 620 pages this was not a quick read. I kept wondering when something would happen, not realizing until the end what an impactful read I was having. Each character is fully developed and each character's struggle becomes real in the reader's ...   Read More

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White Flight

In We Are Not Ourselves, Eileen Leary moves to a three-family home in Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, which, even as she watches, becomes increasingly diverse. "Supposedly it was the most ethnically diverse square mile in the world. Someone more poetically inclined might find inspiration in the polyphony of voices, but she just wanted to be surrounded by people who looked like her family," Matthew Thomas writes about Eileen's subtle racism. Attitudes such as this, many argue, were part of a complex mix of factors that drove white people to the suburbs in the mid-twentieth century.

Levittown, NY 1950sA vibrant post-WWII economy meant the expansion of the American dream for the middle class with government-subsidized mortgages readily available to...

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