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We Are Not Ourselves

We Are Not Ourselves

3.4 58
by Matthew Thomas

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New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014
Washington Post Top 50 Fiction List for 2014
Entertainment Weekly Ten Best Fiction Books of 2014
Esquire 5 Most Important Books of 2014
Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2014
• One of Janet Maslin’s Ten Favorite Books of the Year in


New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014
Washington Post Top 50 Fiction List for 2014
Entertainment Weekly Ten Best Fiction Books of 2014
Esquire 5 Most Important Books of 2014
Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2014
• One of Janet Maslin’s Ten Favorite Books of the Year in The New York Times

The instant New York Times bestseller the Washington Post calls a “stunning…superbly rendered” novel, and Entertainment Weekly describes as “a gripping family saga, maybe the best…since The Corrections.”

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 how much alcohol has been consumed. From an early age, Eileen wished that she lived somewhere else. She sets her sights on upper class Bronxville, New York, and an American Dream is born.

Driven by this longing, Eileen places her stock and love in Ed Leary, a handsome young scientist, and with him begins a family. Over the years Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house. It slowly becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper, more incomprehensive 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.

Described by The New York Times Book Review as “A long, gorgeous epic, full of love and caring…one of the best novels you’ll read this year,” We Are Not Ourselves is a testament to our greatest desires and our greatest frailties. Through the lives of these characters, Thomas charts the story of the American Century. The result is, “stunning…The joys of this book are the joys of any classic work of literature—for that is what this is destined to become—superbly rendered small moments that capture both an individual life and the universality of that person’s experience” (The Washington Post).

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin
…an honest, intimate family story with the power to rock you to your core…Mr. Thomas's narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull's-eye instincts into his Irish characters' fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott…This is a book in which a hundred fast-moving pages feel like a lifetime and everything looks different in retrospect. As in the real world, the reader's point of view must change as often as those of the characters…This is one of the frankest novels ever written about love between a caregiver and a person with a degenerative disease…Mr. Thomas spares nothing and still makes it clear how deeply in love these soul mates are.
USA Today - Bob Minzesheimer
This is an ambitious, beautifully written novel about ambition and what it can do and not do. It deals with the classic American Dream in all its messy complications…The writing does not draw attention to itself, but attention should be paid. Thomas, who worked on the novel for a decade while teaching high school English, has a way with sentences…
The New York Times Book Review - Maggie Scarf
The novel's description of the remorseless progress of [Alzheimer's]…reads like a tortuous descent into hell…Amazingly, however, We Are Not Ourselves isn't ultimately depressing. Written in calm, polished prose, following one family as its members journey through the decades in an American landscape that is itself in flux, it's a long, gorgeous epic, full of love and life and caring. It's even funny, in places—and it's one of the best novels you'll read this year.
Publishers Weekly
★ 04/21/2014
In his powerful and significant debut novel, Thomas masterfully evokes one woman’s life in the context of a brilliantly observed Irish working-class milieu. Eileen Tumulty was born in the early ’40s, the only child and dutiful caretaker of alcoholic parents. As a young woman, she hopes to leave her family’s dingy apartment in Woodside, Queens, and move up the social ladder. Eileen falls in love with and marries Ed Leary, a quiet neuroscientist whom she sees as the means to an upper-middle-class future. But Ed is dedicated to pure scientific research, and he turns down lucrative job offers from pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions. The couple’s apartment in Jackson Heights is a step up from Eileen’s parents’ apartment, but she wants a home in tony Westchester County. Later, Eileen pursues an arduous career as a nursing administrator to secure a future for their son, Connell. But once she gets her gracious but dilapidated fixer-upper in Bronxville, in southern Westchester, Ed is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the family slowly endures “the encroaching of a fathomless darkness.” Thomas works on a large canvas to create a memorable depiction of Eileen’s vibrant spirit, the intimacy of her love for Ed, and the desperate stoicism she exhibits as reality narrows her dreams. Her life, observed over a span of six decades, comes close to a definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century. Thomas’s emotional truthfulness combines with the novel’s texture and scope to create an unforgettable narrative. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
The Corrections. The Art of Fielding. Most years, there’s a mega-hyped American epic that’s heralded as a literary breakout. This year’s, a saga about an Irish-American family in Queens, is refreshingly unpretentious but packed with soul—and profoundly moving characters.” —Entertainment Weekly, The Must List

“A gripping family saga, maybe the best I've read since The Corrections.”
—Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly, Grade: A

"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.”
—Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding

"The mind is a mystery no less than the heart. In We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas has written a masterwork on both, as well as an anatomy of the American middle class in the 20th Century. 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."
—Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End

"Okay, straight out, this novel is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. We Are Not Ourselves delivers the deepest, most involving and best pleasures of reading, the pleasures that have you lose your hours while curled up in a comfy couch, that have you sneaking looks and reading when you should be doing other things. A true epic in the best sense of the word, encompassing the big great gorgeous heartbreak that was our American Century. You doubt me. Please do not. Each page is suffused with a relentless and probing genius, as well as a generous and humane heart, and the result not only explodes across the darkening sky, but remains with you long after you've finished the last page and handed it to someone you love. So long as there are novels like We Are Not Ourselves, so long as there are writers like Matthew Thomas, the form of the novel is more than alive, it is thriving, palpitant.”
—Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children

“In his powerful and significant debut novel, Thomas masterfully evokes one woman’s life in the context of a brilliantly observed Irish working-class milieu….a definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century. Thomas’s emotional truthfulness combines with the novel’s texture and scope to create an unforgettable narrative.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"We Are Not Ourselves is wonderful on the position of the striving classes and our longings on behalf of our families, and on how we deal with unexpected disaster. It’s as fiercely passionate and big-hearted and memorable as Eileen, its I’m-holding-this-family-together-with-my-two-hands protagonist."
—Jim Shepard, author of Project X and You Think That’s Bad

“[A] masterly debut.”
Vanity Fair

“[A] devastating debut novel . . . an honest, intimate family story with the power to rock you to your core . . . [a] wrenchingly credible main character . . . rich, sprawling . . . Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott . . . Part of what makes We Are Not Ourselves so gripping is the credible yet surprising ways in which it reveals the details of any neuroscientist’s worst nightmare . . . This is a book in which a hundred fast-moving pages feel like a lifetime and everything looks different in retrospect. As in the real world, the reader’s point of view must change as often as those of the characters . . . This is one of the frankest novels ever written about love between a caregiver and a person with a degenerative disease. The great French film “Amour” conveyed the emotional aspects of such a relationship, but Mr. Thomas spares nothing and still makes it clear how deeply in love these soul mates are.” —Janet Maslin, New York Times

“Astonishing and powerful…Thomas’s finely observed tale is riveting. As a reflection of American society in the late 20th century, it’s altogether epic, sweeping the reader along on a journey that’s both inexorable and poignant.” —People

“the sprawling, brilliant, heartbreaking debut novel by Matthew Thomas, is the story of an American family deeply affected by the father’s early-onset Alzheimer’s, told primarily through his wife, Eileen, a fiercely proud nurse. It’s stunning how this novel — page after unblinking page of seemingly mundane details in the lives of three people— can be so utterly captivating and moving.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Library Journal
An epic tale about an Irish American couple and the constraints of the American dream, this first novel is benefiting from tremendous in-house enthusiasm. Eileen Tumulty, raised by her immigrant parents in Woodside, NY, in the 1940s and 1950s, is determined not to settle for some boisterous, glad-handing type. Serious-minded scientist Ed Leary seems exactly the right sort to carry her to the larger world, but their marriage founders as she realizes that he really doesn't care about increasingly bigger, better homes, cars, and jobs. The portrait of a marriage and of a crucial time in American history; great for book clubs.
Kirkus Reviews
An Irish-American family in New York City pursues simple dreams in a long and only partially satisfying first novel.Thomas' debut opens promisingly with the outsize character of Big Mike Tumulty, an Irish immigrant and bar-stool sage possessed of "a terrible charisma." The humor and brisk pace of this well-drawn section too rarely recur in the many dry, dour pages that follow. Mike's daughter and the book's heroine, Eileen, arrives in 1941 and grows up in a household where affection and money are scarce. She pursues a nursing career, marries a teacher named Ed Leary and has a son, Connell. Eileen is driven to improve their housing, from rented rooms in a multifamily Queens home to owning that home and finally the big move to the costly suburb of Bronxville. Only a few pages later, at the book's midpoint, they learn that Ed, at 51, has early-onset Alzheimer's, "the most virulent kind….It dismantles motor functions and speech as it erases the memory." Thomas, who has relied to this point on thinly linked vignettes, is most effective in the sustained picture of Ed's terrible decline and Eileen's fierce struggle to maintain his dignity and her control. And a story almost painfully confined to the family trio now acquires a couple of colorful characters in a healer who speaks through the spirit Vywamus and a hired man named Sergei who offers strength and the chance of new passion.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.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

We Are Not Ourselves

  • Instead of going to the priest, the men who gathered at Doherty’s Bar after work went to Eileen Tumulty’s father. Eileen was there to see it for herself, even though she was only in the fourth grade. When her father finished his delivery route, around four thirty, he picked her up at step dancing and walked her over to the bar. Practice went until six, but Eileen never minded leaving the rectory basement early. Mr. Hurley was always yelling at her to get the timing right or to keep her arms flush at her sides. Eileen was too lanky for the compact movements of a dance that evolved, according to Mr. Hurley, to disguise itself as standing still when the police passed by. She wanted to learn the jitterbug or Lindy Hop, anything she could throw her restless limbs into with abandon, but her mother signed her up for Irish dancing instead.

    Her mother hadn’t let go of Ireland entirely. She wasn’t a citizen yet. Her father liked to tout that he’d applied for his citizenship on the first day he was eligible to. The framed Certificate of Citizenship, dated May 3, 1938, hung in the living room across from a watercolor painting of St. Patrick banishing the snakes, the only artwork in the apartment unless you counted the carved-wood Celtic cross in the kitchen. The little photo in the certificate bore an embossed seal, a tidy signature, and a face with an implacably fierce expression. Eileen looked into it for answers, but the tight-lipped younger version of her father never gave anything up.

    •  •  •

    When Eileen’s father filled the doorway with his body, holding his Stetson hat in front of him like a shield against small talk, Mr. Hurley stopped barking, and not just at Eileen. Men were always quieting down around her father. The recording played on and the girls finished the slip jig they were running. The fiddle music was lovely when Eileen didn’t have to worry about keeping her unruly body in line. At the end of the tune, Mr. Hurley didn’t waste time giving Eileen permission to leave. He just looked at the floor while she gathered her things. She was in such a hurry to get out of there and begin the wordless walk that she waited until she got to the street to change her shoes.

    When they reached the block the bar was on, Eileen ran ahead to see if she could catch one of the men sitting on her father’s stool, which she’d never seen anyone else occupy, but all she found was them gathered in a half circle around it, as if anticipation of his presence had drawn them near.

    The place was smoky and she was the only kid there, but she got to watch her father hold court. Before five, the patrons were laborers like him who drank their beers deliberately, contented in their exhaustion, well-being hanging about them like a mist. After five, the office workers drifted in, clicking their coins on the crowded bar as they waited to be served. They gulped their beers and signaled for another immediately, gripping the railing with two hands and leaning in to hurry the drink along. They watched her father as much as they did the bartender.

    She sat at one of the creaky tables up front, in her pleated skirt and collared blouse, doing her homework but also training an ear on her father’s conversations. She didn’t have to strain to hear what they told him, because they felt no need to whisper, even when she was only a few feet away. There was something clarifying in her father’s authority; it absolved other men of embarrassment.

    “It’s driving me nuts,” his friend Tom said, fumbling to speak. “I can’t sleep.”

    “Out with it.”

    “I stepped out on Sheila.”

    Her father leaned in closer, his eyes pinning Tom to the barstool.

    “How many times?”

    “Just the once.”

    “Don’t lie to me.”

    “The second time I was too nervous to bring it off.”

    “That’s twice, then.”

    “It is.”

    The bartender swept past to check the level of their drinks, slapped the bar towel over his shoulder, and moved along. Her father glanced at her and she pushed her pencil harder into her workbook, breaking off the point.

    “Who’s the floozy?”

    “A girl at the bank.”

    “You’ll tell her the idiocy is over.”

    “I will, Mike.”

    “Are you going to be a goddamned idiot again? Tell me now.”


    A man came through the door, and her father and Tom nodded at him. A draft followed him in, chilling her bare legs and carrying the smell of spilled beer and floor cleaner to her.

    “Reach into your pocket,” her father said. “Every penny you have stashed. Buy Sheila something nice.”

    “Yes, that’s the thing. That’s the thing.”

    “Every last penny.”

    “I won’t hold out.”

    “Swear before God that that’s the end of it.”

    “I swear, Mike. I solemnly swear.”

    “Don’t let me hear about you gallivanting around.”

    “Those days are over.”

    “And don’t go and do some fool thing like tell that poor woman what you’ve done. It’s enough for her to put up with you without knowing this.”

    “Yes,” Tom said. “Yes.”

    “You’re a damned fool.”

    “I am.”

    “That’s the last we’ll speak of it. Get us a couple of drinks.”

    •  •  •

    They laughed at everything he said, unless he was being serious, and then they put on grave faces. They held forth on the topic of his virtues as though he weren’t standing right there. Half of them he’d gotten jobs for off the boat—at Schaefer, at Macy’s, behind the bar, as supers or handymen.

    Everybody called him Big Mike. He was reputed to be immune to pain. He had shoulders so broad that even in shirtsleeves he looked like he was wearing a suit jacket. His fists were the size of babies’ heads, and in the trunk he resembled one of the kegs of beer he carried in the crook of each elbow. He put no effort into his physique apart from his labor, and he wasn’t muscle-bound, just country strong. If you caught him in a moment of repose, he seemed to shrink to normal proportions. If you had something to hide, he grew before your eyes.

    She wasn’t too young to understand that the ones who pleased him were the rare ones who didn’t drain the frothy brew of his myth in a quick quaff, but nosed around the brine of his humanity awhile, giving it skeptical sniffs.

    •  •  •

    She was only nine, but she’d figured a few things out. She knew why her father didn’t just swing by step dancing on the way home for dinner. To do so would have meant depriving the men in suits who arrived back from Manhattan toward the end of the hour of the little time he gave them every day. They loosened their ties around him, took their jackets off, huddled close, and started talking. He would’ve had to leave the bar by five thirty instead of a quarter to six, and the extra minutes made all the difference. She understood that it wasn’t only enjoyment for him, that part of what he was doing was making himself available to his men, and that his duty to her mother was just as important.

    The three of them ate dinner together every night. Her mother served the meal promptly at six after spending the day cleaning bathrooms and offices at the Bulova plant. She was never in the mood for excuses. Eileen’s father checked his watch the whole way home and picked up the pace as they neared the building. Sometimes Eileen couldn’t keep up and he carried her in the final stretch. Sometimes she walked slowly on purpose in order to be borne in his arms.

    •  •  •

    One balmy evening in June, a week before her fourth-grade year ended, Eileen and her father came home to find the plates set out and the door to the bedroom closed. Her father tapped at his watch with a betrayed look, wound it, and set it to the clock above the sink, which said six twenty. Eileen had never seen him so upset. She could tell it was about something more than being late, something between her parents that she had no insight into. She was angry at her mother for adhering so rigidly to her rule, but her father didn’t seem to share that anger. He ate slowly, silently, refilling her glass when he rose to fill his own and ladling out more carrots for her from the pot on the stovetop. Then he put his coat on and went back out. Eileen went to the door of the bedroom but didn’t open it. She listened and heard nothing. She went to Mr. Kehoe’s door, but there was silence there too. She felt a sudden terror at the thought of having been abandoned. She wanted to bang on both doors and bring them out, but she knew enough not to go near her mother just then. To calm herself, she cleaned the stovetop and counters, leaving no crumbs or smudges, no evidence that her mother had cooked in the first place. She tried to imagine what it would feel like to have always been alone. She decided that being alone to begin with would be easier than being left alone. Everything would be easier than that.

    •  •  •

    She eavesdropped on her father at the bar because he didn’t talk much at home. When he did, it was to lay out basic principles as he speared a piece of meat. “A man should never go without something he wants just because he doesn’t want to work for it.” “Everyone should have a second job.” “Money is made to be spent.” (On this last point he was firm; he had no patience for American-born people with no cash in their pocket to spring for a round.)

    As for his second job, it was tending bar, at Doherty’s, at Hartnett’s, at Leitrim Castle—a night a week at each. Whenever Big Mike Tumulty was the one pulling the taps and filling the tumblers, the bar filled up to the point of hazard and made tons of money, as though he were a touring thespian giving limited-run performances. Schaefer didn’t suffer either; everyone knew he was a Schaefer man. He worked at keeping the brogue her mother worked to lose; it was professionally useful.

    If Eileen scrubbed up the courage to ask about her roots, he silenced her with a wave of the hand. “I’m an American,” he said, as if it settled the question, and in a sense it did.

    •  •  •

    By the time Eileen was born, in November of 1941, some traces remained of the sylvan scenes suggested in her neighborhood’s name, but the balance of Woodside’s verdancy belonged to the cemeteries that bordered it. The natural order was inverted there, the asphalt, clapboard, and brick breathing with life and the dead holding sway over the grass.

    Her father came from twelve and her mother from thirteen, but Eileen had no brothers or sisters. In a four-story building set among houses planted in close rows by the river of the elevated 7 train, the three of them slept in twin beds in a room that resembled an army barracks. The other bedroom housed a lodger, Henry Kehoe, who slept like a king in exchange for offsetting some of the monthly expenses. Mr. Kehoe ate his meals elsewhere, and when he was home he sat in his room with the door closed, playing the clarinet quietly enough that Eileen had to press an ear to the door to hear it. She only saw him when he came and went or used the bathroom. It might have been strange to suffer his spectral presence if she’d ever known anything else, but as it was, it comforted her to know he was behind that door, especially on nights her father came home after drinking whiskey.

    Her father didn’t always drink. Nights he tended bar, he didn’t touch a drop, and every Lent he gave it up, to prove he could—except, of course, for St. Patrick’s Day and the days bookending it.

    Nights her father tended bar, Eileen and her mother turned in early and slept soundly. Nights he didn’t, though, her mother kept her up later, the two of them giving a going-over to all the little extras—the good silver, the figurines, the chandelier crystals, the picture frames. Whatever chaos might ensue upon her father’s arrival, there prevailed beforehand a palpable excitement, as if they were throwing a party for a single guest. When there was nothing left to clean or polish, her mother sent her to bed and waited on the couch. Eileen kept the bedroom door cracked.

    Her father was fine when he drank beer. He hung his hat and slid his coat down deliberately onto the hook in the wall. Then he slumped on the couch like a big bear on a leash, soft and grumbling, his pipe firmly in the grip of his teeth. She could hear her mother speaking quietly to him about household matters; he would nod and press the splayed fingers of his hands together, making a steeple and collapsing it.

    Some nights he even walked in dancing and made her mother laugh despite her intention to ignore him. He lifted her up from the couch and led her around the room in a slow box step. He had a terrible charisma; she wasn’t immune to it.

    When he drank whiskey, though, which was mostly on paydays, the leash came off. He slammed his coat on the vestibule table and stalked the place looking for things to throw, as if the accumulated pressure of expectations at the bar could only be driven off by physical acts. It was well known what a great quantity of whiskey her father could drink without losing his composure—she’d heard the men brag about it at Doherty’s—and one night, in response to her mother’s frank and defeated question, he explained that when he was set up with a challenge, a string of rounds, he refused to disappoint the men’s faith in him, even if he had to exhaust himself concentrating on keeping his back stiff and his words sharp and clear. Everyone needed something to believe in.

    He didn’t throw anything at her mother, and he only threw what didn’t break: couch pillows, books. Her mother went silent and still until he was done. If he saw Eileen peeking at him through the sliver in the bedroom door, he stopped abruptly, like an actor who’d forgotten his line, and went into the bathroom. Her mother slid into bed. In the morning, he glowered over a cup of tea, blinking his eyes slowly like a lizard.

    Sometimes Eileen could hear the Gradys or the Longs fighting. She found succor in the sound of that anger; it meant her family wasn’t the only troubled one in the building. Her parents shared moments of dark communion over it too, raising brows at each other across the kitchen table or exchanging wan smiles when the voices started up.

    Once, over dinner, her father gestured toward Mr. Kehoe’s room. “We won’t have him here forever,” he said to her mother. As Eileen was struck by sadness at the thought of life without Mr. Kehoe, her father added, “Lord willing.”

    No matter how often she strained to hear Mr. Kehoe through the walls, the only sounds were the squeaks of bedsprings, the low scratching of a pen when he sat at the little desk, or the quiet rasp of the clarinet.

    •  •  •

    They were at the dinner table when her mother stood and left the room in a hurry. Her father followed, pulling the bedroom door closed behind him. Their voices were hushed, but Eileen could hear the straining energy in them. She inched closer.

    “I’ll get it back.”

    “You’re a damned idiot.”

    “I’ll make it right.”

    “How? ‘Big Mike doesn’t borrow a penny from any man,’ ” she sneered.

    “There’ll be a way.”

    “How could you let it get so out of hand?”

    “You think I want my wife and daughter living in this place?”

    “Oh, that’s just grand. It’s our fault now, is it?”

    “I’m not saying that.”

    In the living room, the wind shifted the bedroom door against Eileen’s hands, making her heart beat faster.

    “You love the horses and numbers,” her mother said. “Don’t make it into something it wasn’t.”

    “It was in the back of my mind,” her father said. “I know you don’t want to be here.”

    “I once believed you could wind up being mayor of New York,” her mother said. “But you’re satisfied being mayor of Doherty’s. Not even owner of Doherty’s. Mayor of Doherty’s.” She paused. “I should never have taken that damn thing off my finger.”

    “I’ll get it back. I promise.”

    “You won’t, and you know it.” Her mother had been stifling her shouts, practically hissing, but now she sounded merely sad. “You chip away and chip away. One day there won’t be anything left.”

    “That’s enough now,” her father said, and in the silence that followed Eileen pictured them standing in the mysterious knowledge that passed between them, like two stone figures whose hearts she would never fathom.

    The next time she was alone in the house, she went to the bureau drawer where her mother had stashed her engagement ring for safekeeping ever since the time she’d almost lost it down the drain while doing dishes. From time to time, Eileen had observed her opening the box. She’d thought her mother had been letting its facets catch the light for a spell, but now that she saw the empty space where the box had been, she realized her mother had been making sure it was still there.

    •  •  •

    A week before her tenth birthday, Eileen walked in with her father and saw that her mother wasn’t in the kitchen. She wasn’t in the bedroom either, or the bathroom, and she hadn’t left a note.

    Her father heated up a can of beans, fried some bacon, and put out a few slices of bread.

    Her mother came home while they were eating. “Congratulate me,” she said as she hung up her coat.

    Her father waited until he finished chewing. “For what?”

    Her mother slapped some papers on the table and looked at him intently in that way she sometimes did when she was trying to get a rise out of him. He bit another piece of bacon and picked the papers up as he worked the meat in his jaw. His brow furrowed as he read. Then he put them down.

    “How could you do this?” he asked quietly. “How could you let it not be me?”

    If Eileen didn’t know better, she would have said he sounded hurt, but nothing on earth was capable of hurting her father.

    Her mother looked almost disappointed not to be yelled at. She gathered the papers and went into the bedroom. A few minutes later, her father took his hat off the hook and left.

    Eileen went in and sat on her own bed. Her mother was at the window, smoking.

    “What happened? I don’t understand.”

    “Those are naturalization papers.” Her mother pointed to the dresser. “Go ahead, take a look.” Eileen walked over and picked them up. “As of today, I’m a citizen of the United States. Congratulate me.”

    “Congratulations,” Eileen said.

    Her mother produced a sad little grin between drags. “I started this months ago,” she said. “I didn’t tell your father. I was going to surprise him, bring him along. It would have meant something to him to be my sponsor at the swearing in. Then I decided to hurt him. I brought my cousin Danny Glasheen instead.”

    Eileen nodded; there was Danny’s name. The papers looked like the kind that would be kept in a file for hundreds of years, for as long as civilization lasted.

    “Now I wish I could take it back.” Her mother gave a rueful laugh. “Your father is a creature of great ceremony.”

    Eileen wasn’t sure what her mother meant, but she thought it had to do with the way it mattered to her father to carry even little things out the right way. She’d seen it herself: the way he took the elbow of a man who’d had too much to drink and leaned him into the bar to keep him on his feet without his noticing he was being aided; the way he never knocked a beer glass over or spilled a drop of whiskey; the way he kept his hair combed neat, no strand out of place. She’d watched him carry the casket at a few funerals. He made it seem as if keeping one’s eyes forward, one’s posture straight, and one’s pace steady while bearing a dead man down the steps of a church as a bagpiper played was the most crucial task in the world. It was part of why men felt so strongly about him. It must have been part of why her mother did too.

    “Don’t ever love anyone,” her mother said, picking the papers up and sliding them into the bureau drawer she’d kept her ring in. “All you’ll do is break your own heart.”

  • Meet the Author

    Matthew Thomas was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he has an MA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. His New York Times-bestselling novel We Are Not Ourselves has been shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. He lives with his wife and twin children in New Jersey.

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    We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 58 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Bound to be a best seller. A family torn apart by something no one can predict. This book poses questions. What would we do if we were them. This book is sad, hard to read, but so worthwhile.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Weaves everyday life experiences and tragedy into a compelling novel that you won't want to put down. Rich characters and vivid descriptions of familiar routines and interactions make the central plot line involving early-onset Alzheimers even more tragic and poignant. A love story that is truly sad, but ultimately hopeful. Touched my heart like few books have done.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    What a great book. I could not put it down. A very interesting, intimate portrait of a family dealing with challenging circumstances and a devastating diagnosis. The female protagonist is one of the most interesting literary characters introduced in years. Strongly recommend this book.
    bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
    We Are Not Ourselves tells not only Eileen's story, but it is ours too. We want what Eileen wants: love, family, satisfying work, a home of our own, our part of the American dream. We are willing to work hard for it, but along the way things happen that can derail our lives. How we deal with the bumps along the road, big and small, will define us. I loved this beautiful, sad, heartbreaking novel. Eileen is not a perfect woman; her inability to show affection for her son caused both of them much pain. But when the chips were down, Eileen showed her true colors. She did what most us do: step up, soldier on, and do the best we can, even if that sometimes wasn't enough. There were so many things that made my heart hurt here. When Eileen's mother is on her deathbed after years of sobriety, she tells Eileen that she wishes she hadn't stopped drinking. She would have given everything she had a way for another drink. That just killed me. Eileen's relationship with her son was a heartbreaker too. Connell couldn't step up when she needed him to, and he was willing to throw away everything Eileen and Ed had worked for and hoped for him.  Eileen's rage and disappointment is palpable on the page. We Are Not Ourselves is the kind of book that you savor as you're reading, devouring it all and occasionally closing the book to contemplate the beautiful language and story. And when I finished it, I wanted to open it again and start re-reading it, wanting to experience it again and yet regretting that I will never read this stunning book for the first time again. But I know this will be a book I turn to again and again. Frequently books that have such hype can't possibly live up to the expectations. Do not fear, We Are Not Ourselves not only does that, but exceeds it.
    patd1 More than 1 year ago
    This was engrossing from the beginning. With only 3 main characters, it is a testament to how masterfully written this book is. Over 600 pages, I read it in less than 3 days, and was sorry when I completed it.  A beautiful story.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This may seem like pouring cold water on all these glowing reviews but I kept trying to really like this book, without mich luck at all. So, please let me say I have no argument with the content of the story per se. Most people can relate to these sad life events. What got me - and kept me putting down my Nook far too frequently - is the monotonous writing style. It seemed that the author was never fully engaged with the characters. There was no lyrical flow, no profoundly deep descriptions, no emotional oomph, no highs or lows in tone - just a steady one-beat noise- white noise almost. The one part of the story that seemed to awaken with passion and connection was Connell's first year at college. Suddenly, I fell into the story because it became emotionally descriptive. I'm sorry I spent the time and money on this book when there's so kuch great stuff out there. Not a winner. You mightbe bored.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    So yes, it is long. I like a long book. Books shorter than 200 pages are rarely worth the effort. The story does not drag. It has a nice pace all the way through. The charcters are fully examined and follow paths that are not exciting, because this is not a thriller.. It's a family story. The dialog is natural. Most people can identify with the charcters in some way. The book is carefully researched and had a lot to say about the medical industry, social change, and the way people treat one another. If yiu have experience with end of life issues, the story will resonate. The overview given correctly describes the book. Why are people surprised that it is long? I was happy to sit and read it at the end of the evening. It was lovely. Finished in a week. Quit whining.
    maureen-reads More than 1 year ago
    Despite the rave review in the NYT, I cannot give this novel more than 2 stars. The plot is fine, but the prose is plodding. If you require beautiful prose (think Updike, Paul Harding, Ben Fountain, Roth, Michael Cunningham, Ondaatje...enough you say!), you will never make it through this novel. 
    NahvilleReader More than 1 year ago
    Dismal and oppressive. I'm not a reader who needs a happy ending, but this book had nothing to make me feel connected to the story or the characters. Most of the time I wanted to smack them. The writing style was just ok to me. I had a difficult time wanting to finish this book, but I did. I'm not sure I understand the rave reviews. This book would make me think twice about reading another by this author.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I liked this book, but not until the last few hundred of pages. The majority of the book (its 600 pages long) is pretty slow, and I feel like a lot of pointless things were added to it that could have been left out. However, the last few dozen chapters were really good and made it worth the read. Looking back, I actually like the "slower" parts because they added so much to the characters, I just couldnt see it at the time. The reason I liked this book so much was because its just so relateable. Every character, flaws and all, can be related to your own life. Somehow, someway, your story  fits in between the lines. Its touching and thought provoking. Overall, its a good read. Just keep reading, it gets better! :)
    PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
    This book is a wonderful saga. I was concerned about the length; some books that reach 400-600 pages, get bogged down in mind-numbing details. Not so with this book. It moves at a pace that keeps the mind and heart engaged. Well-developed characters, and not stooping to sensationalism - two more reasons I loved this book. I know that a book has become a part of me, when I am worried about who will play the parts when the book inevitably makes it into the theaters. It's also a moving treatment of how Alzheimer's Disease affects families. I hope the producers will be careful with that! The only "negative" for me was the obvious insertion of politics, which is unnecessary. Everyone has their own causes and beliefs, and there's no need to try to obviously indoctrinate via fiction; only the unintelligent would fall for that, anyway and is that the people you want for your cause?! If we want politics, we can turn on Fox or MSNBC, depending on the bent. But otherwise, if you love wide-ranging family stories, don't miss this one. It leaves you with the inspiration to appreciate every single moment with loved ones.
    jenniferklynn More than 1 year ago
    This book accomplished something that no book has ever made me do: it made me cry... twice. This story about a family may seem on the onset to be fairly simple and normal but, as the years progress, there is this gentle attention to detail that inevitably pulls you in and fosters this emotional attachment to them. Since finishing this book, I have told just about everyone I know about it and consistently urge them to read it. This was, by far, the most elegant and well-written books I have read in a very long time.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Over 600 pages and yet I felt no connections to any of the characters. I was able to skip blocks of pages without missing anything. Barely good enough to finish. Don't get all the 5 star reviews.
    RichardSutton More than 1 year ago
    An incredible tour de force as a debut novel, this book is a thoughtful examination of the most basic components of our relationships with our families. It takes place over several lifetimes and in sufficient detail to draw the right reader in. The writing voice is conversational and easily recognizable. I'm lucky to have lived in NY Metro for more than thirty years now, as many of the characters idiosyncrasies are exactly as I have observed them myself. Many of the places are places I know, and the author has done himself proud with the knack of picking exactly the right detail element to settle the reader right into the heart of the character. It does take a long time to tell this story properly. I read this in hard cover and immediately remarked to my wife as to how thin the chosen paper stock was. Now, having closed the back cover, I can offer my heartfelt thanks to the publisher for the weight savings that decision made possible. Readers who enjoy carrying a heavy tome about for days, in hand as well as heart can add a star to my review. If printed on normal stock it would need a hand truck. Closing that back cover, I can also say that this is an important, emotional book. It deals with one of the most terrifying maladies in existence. It puts a remarkably memorable face on love and expectations. I sincerely hope I will never forget it.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This is one of the best books I've read all year. It is not only a sensitive look into people's dreams vs the reality of their lives. It is also a book that made me reflect on the feelings and emotions common to all humanity. Some reviewers have remarked that this book is too long. I wish it had been twice it's length!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Well written, engaging and long story about an unhappy marriage further complicated by early onset Alsheimers in an already unlikeable man. Helps to know NY and environs,especially Westchester County. None of the characters are particularly likeable but probably quite human. Pass on this.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This is an "everyman" story, beautifully written, about a small family with joys and heartaches - ups and downs - throughout their lives. The book talks to the everyday occurrences that make up all our lives - the impact the past has on our present and future, and the inescapable surprises life has in store for us all. The characters are very richly drawn, very real; You easily come to know Eileen, Ed, and Connell. I loved this book and highly recommend it.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I'm angry that I wasted not only my money but my time reading this dull book. I have literally watched paint dry and was more entertained.
    tedfeit0 More than 1 year ago
    This family saga drags on for three generations (and over 600 pages) with less than interesting participants. The first family is comprised of Irish-Americans, with the stereotyped father a driver of a beer delivery truck and a reformed alcoholic mother, plus a daughter named Eileen who aspires to much greater of life’s accomplishments than can be found in the Archie Bunker-type home in Woodside, Queens. Instead, Eileen has to settle for becoming a nurse and marrying Ed Leary, a professor at the Bronx Community College with no desire for advancement and content with being a highly competent teacher and researcher. So Eileen has to fulfill her ambitions by encouraging (and failing) to push Ed ever onward and upward. Then she has to transfer these aspirations to her son, whom she pretentiously names Connell. She has big eyes, and wants more and more, finally after a long, arduous argument convincing Ed to move to a house in Bronxville from the three-family home they owned in Jackson Heights, appeasing her upward desires somewhat. And life goes on and on toward the inevitable denouement. From the start, beginning with Eileen’s father, the characters are wooden and unbelievable, especially Connell, as he progresses in life (the story takes place over four decades). Eileen’s attitude toward her husband and marriage does not ring true. She is satisfied or not, one can’t really know, despite the ending, which doesn’t seem credible. And this is supposed to represent life faithfully.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I give every book 100 pages if i dont like characters i put it down this book i can totally relate I totally recommend if your not too uptight fantastic
    MargieS1 More than 1 year ago
    Given To Me For An Honest Review MatthewThomas' book We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel is a book everyone should read.  It is a story that  many families live and don't want others to know about.  The beginning is a bit slow but as you read it  does become a page turner.  It is about a family that outside people see as a "perfect" family living a  "perfect' life.  But, Alzhiemers is also living there and their life is really not perfect but no one wants the  outside world to know.  This is a good book about relationships with families.
    Anonymous 23 days ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Good writing but the characters are neither likable nor interesting
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Despite the length and need for serious editing I finished this book. The author tried too hard at prose and I found myself skipping whole sections. The characters were unlikable and awkward especially eileen's need for material things even after her husband's diagnosis (which she should have seen coming one hundred pages earlier with her nursing background). Not sure what compelled me to finish but when I did, I was grossly unsatisfied.