If literature’s primary goal is to cultivate empathy, then Matthew Thomas’s latest (and first) novel We Are Not Ourselves (2014) succeeds. It is not a great American novel – it is a great American story. A character-driven novel, WANO tells the story of Eileen Tumulty, a first generation Irish American in New York City. She aspires to rise above her working-class parents. After marrying the promising academic Edmund Leary, her father says, “If you’re not in a house by the time I’m dead, I’ll haunt you from my grave.”
Thus, the American Dream becomes Eileen’s Dream: buy a house, raise a family. Though over 600 pages, WANO reads quickly with the average chapter length of three pages. Thomas’s highly polished prose makes for a smooth read, but this is not a light read. Ed’s descent into dementia at age fifty is an honest, unsparing portrayal of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s. He becomes a chastened Lear, his mind a lump of sand slowly sinking through the sieve.
We watch Eileen struggle to care for him and raise their son Connell. The relationship between Ed and Connell is one of the more moving father-son dynamics I have seen portrayed in literature recently. Eileen herself proves to be an unbreakable female protagonist whose life we see unfold over a period of sixty years. Thomas has written a moving, unsentimental family saga that creates a rare empathy for his chararacters, imperfections and all.
Life, she thought, was like that sometimes; for years, things were a certain way, and then in an instant, almost without conscious thought, they weren’t that way any longer, as if all the hidden pressure on their having been the way they’d been had found release through a necessary valve.