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Book Review: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

January 1, 2017

When it started getting cold this fall, I found a book with a slightly warped cover and missing its jacket while digging through a box looking for winter clothes. The bottom was a bit marred by what looks to have been a zipper, likely the result of being the passenger of a firmly packed suitcase, and a joker from a deck of playing cards was peeking out above the pages, stuck somewhere around the middle. I smiled as I realized what book I was holding. How apt it was that this book had been lost to me the past two years and it’s discovery perfectly timed to finish this year with it.

I started reading Matthew Thomas’ book We Are Not Ourselves two years after being wrecked by the death of someone close to me, my husband’s best friend. I was beginning my Bachelor’s degree and had decided to change my major to something I had a passion for, English Language and Literature, rather than something my father would deem practical. My mother was financing the gas and hotel money for a trip halfway across the country for her daughter and grandsons to be home for Christmas, and along the way I was to attend a book launch of an anthology I was published in to read my piece. It was on the homeward bound part of this journey that the book became lost to me, and after two moves and a completed degree, I found it again.

Thomas’ story speaks of the dreams, regrets, and fears that haunt our lives continuously. The expectations of our parents, the desire for our children to have better and more fulfilling lives than the ones we lost decades ago, the disappointment of failing to be more than average – these things are universal to human nature, the fuel to our frequent existential and quarter- to mid-life crises. We Are Not Ourselves, an ambitious 620 page tome, is not only a novel that explores the American familial experience but also studies life through different lenses. The book follows the story of Eileen Tumulty, the daughter of Irish immigrants growing up in the 1940s and 50s, her husband Ed Leary, and their son Connell. Thomas takes the reader through decades of the Leary family’s life, reflecting moments, both the impactful and the mundane, that fill their days and make them each who they are as well as who they are as a family. Through Eileen’s desire for some grand appearance of stature, Ed’s unremitting stagnancy and solitude – both desired and inflicted, and Connell’s uncertainty about life and what his is supposed to mean to himself and others, we can understand our own families. If we don’t see this family reflected directly in our own generation, we can certainly begin to wonder about the lives and sacrifices the generations before us went through to give us everything we have, and if any of us had lived our lives putting the importance of giving and receiving love above any other marker of worth.

This book is not for the faint of heart who need action or high drama to keep their attention, but if you enjoy characters, their stories, and the events that drive their actions, We Are Not Ourselves is a book that will leave you contemplating who lives within you and where you go from here.

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