I had heard some chatter about this book at BEA this spring, and I was excited to see it come up on Net Galley. It was heralded as “a multi-generational story of an Irish immigrant family in New York City”. Honestly, I found that to be a bit of a misnomer. WE ARE NOT OURSELVES follows Eileen Tumulty as she grows up in post WWII Queens. Eileen is Irish, but this novel is more a story of a life lived rather than a multi-generational overview of several lives.
Please note that the following contains SPOILERS!
Eileen’s life is portrayed from her childhood and adolescence with alcoholic parents to her marriage to introverted scientist Edward, through motherhood to a son (Connell). Throughout, Eileen was not a character with whom I felt any sort of affinity. No matter what life threw her way she was malcontent. She pushed pushed pushed Ed to be bigger, make more money, get more prestige, buy a new house, a new car, a mink coat. She pushed Connell to be the top of his class. I had at one point thought, “Geez, Eileen, be thankful for what you have and stop being so unhappy about everything.” Then tragedy strikes when Ed is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. His decline and disease is portrayed so realistically and touchingly that at times it brought tears to my eyes. And this was when I finally felt a connection to Eileen, as she became a much better person when dealing with this terrible crisis and loss than she was when everything was fine. As for Connell, until the epilogue I found him to be incredibly self-centered and selfish. Eileen wasn’t disappointed in him, but I was.
If I had to criticize something in this novel, which is acclaimed far and wide, I’d say I thought it was about 150 pages too long. I just didn’t think it needed to be 600+ pages. I also felt until near the end that the whole thing could have been summed up as “life is hard and then you die”; but the ending left me feeling a little more upbeat. Thomas is a beautiful writer.
I would love to hear from others what their experience with this novel was like.