Friday, October 14, 2016

"We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas: One Family's Struggle with the American Dream and Alzheimer's

My best friend Cari and I have similar tastes in books.  When we taught high school together, one of us would rave about a book and the other would read it and then we would rave about it over lunch, or on a sushi date.  I saw her over the summer and explained that I was experiencing a reading drought meaning that no books that I read over the summer had really moved me enough that I could rave about them.  She shook her head and said, "Oh.  I have a book for you.  It will for sure move you." Although she forgot to give it to me before I drove back to Illinois, she mailed "We are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas to my house.  I had a few other books to finish, before I tore into the 600+ pages of Thomas's highly acclaimed debut novel, but I couldn't wait.

The book begins slowly with the protagonist, Eileen Tumulty's hard life.  She's the caretaker of her Irish parents who succumb to alcoholism.  It isn't until Eileen meets Ed Leary, a promising scientist, that the book starts to wake up.  He seems an unusual choice for the hardworking Eileen, but when he kisses her at a New Year's Eve party, she knows she has found the one she wants to spend the rest of her life with.  After years of unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant, Eileen and Ed have a son who they name Connell.

After the first 100 pages of this book, I was captivated enough by the writing which is crisp and at times poetic, to keep going even though nothing significant happened.  These were rather ordinary people dealing with rather ordinary things in life.  But what I loved about Thomas's slow methodical storytelling is that the characters didn't need to impress me for me to be invested in their lives. I could feel the build up to something in the plot.  I could tell that the characters would change.

Eileen's chilly and tough demeanor reminded me of many women in my life.  She's kind to a point, but doesn't reveal much.  She works hard unapologetically, but she dreams of a more cushy life and urges her husband to strive for greatness at work - get more titles, take a promotion, switch universities.  She wants to move into a better neighborhood and becomes obsessed with finding a dream home for her family.  Ironically, once she finds the dream home (which is described as less than dreamy even though the location is ideal), her whole life unravels.  Ed is equally as perplexing as a character.  He is so soft and gentle with his son and so caring with his wife even when she is hard and unfeeling, that he creates a lovable foil to her.

About half way through the novel, Ed's memory is slipping.  He gets calls from the college where he works because students have started to complain.  He'll sit with headphones on for hours because his brain is "hazy" and he wants to get back to basics.  When Eileen finally has had enough and takes him to the doctor, they receive the cruel diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's disease.  Ed is only 51 at the time of diagnosis, and Eileen wants to fight to keep him well and at home for as long as possible.  She hides it from his boss and even when she knows that keeping Ed safe is beyond her capabilities despite the fact that she is an amazing nurse, she still fights to keep him at home with as much dignity and grace as she can allow.

At this point in the journey with the Leary family, my heart broke for all of them.  Connell was too young and too selfish and too unskilled with emotions to deal with the care that his father needed.  Eileen was too unyielding to give in to the complete dissolution of her life dream.  Thomas meticulously describes each failing memory, each loss of human dignity that Ed suffers.  We see this largely from the perspective of Eileen, but one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel is when Connell tries to take care of his father for the day while his mother is working, and his father soils himself. Connell cleans him and again tries his best to deal with not only the physical and demeaning work of the clean up, but also the emotional toll that his father's illness has taken.

It isn't just the slow insidious decline of Ed's mental faculties that kept me reading.  I wanted to know how an ordinary woman would deal with the tragedy of losing her husband to Alzheimer's.  I wanted to know how her son would deal with the guilt and the loss of his father.  Although I have read many books about Alzheimer's, Thomas's novel delves deeper because of the slow build up to the life that Eileen wanted.  We get to know her American Dream, and how she was so close, but how quickly life can change.  As the reader, we get to see the daily discoveries of loss, the daily hope and the daily disintegration of the future that was in reach, but will never be fulfilled.

Ultimately, though, in all the bleak of this novel, it does not end up feeling like a tragedy.  Eileen changes.  Connell changes.  Ed, well . . . poor Ed.

It took me longer to love this book than I thought I would, but I will be thinking about the Leary family for quite some time even though I finished reading it today.  To me, this book has all the makings of an American classic and it deserves the distinction on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014.

Friday, October 7, 2016

"Brooklyn" by Colm Toibin: A Quiet Reflection of an Ordinary Girl in Search of Home

Not everyone wants a life full of adventure.

Some people want to remain in their hometowns and follow the same paths that family and friends chose before them.  Live close to the home where they grew up.  Marry someone who is from the same community.  Create a family and hope that their children will want to grow up close to home.

Twenty year old Eilis Lacey, the protagonist in Colm Toibin's novel "Brooklyn" (made popular by the highly acclaimed movie of the same name), does not want an adventure, but her dutiful yielding to her older sister, Rose, and her widowed mother sends her away from her beloved Enniscorthy in Ireland to Brooklyn, New York in 1951.

The beauty in Toibin's novel stem's from the fact that he chose a very ordinary girl whose life moves at a normal pace under ordinary circumstances.  There are no huge twists and turns or breathless dramatic action scenes in this novel.  The quiet subtleties of the novel, though, are what make it so readable and lovable.  Even Toibin's writing is subtle and quiet without the flair of overt descriptions and highly emotional characters.  Everything in this novel has a dim glow about it rather than a sharply lit room.  It reminds me of my grandmother's home in Highlandtown, Baltimore which was old fashioned, impeccably clean, unsentimental and very straightforward.  Everything had a function. Nothing was whimsical or dramatic.  Life happened in that basement, though.  Friends and family gathered there for holidays and celebrations.  Conversations were never dull and everyone left feeling a semblance of home.

After Eilis's journey to Brooklyn (which was one of the most tenuous scenes of the book when she along with the other passengers battled sea sickness), she is personally escorted by a priest to a respectable boarding house full of other respectable young women.  She gets a job at Bartocci's department store and at the urging of the priest, studies bookkeeping.  When she attends a local Irish dance, she meets and falls for an Italian American named Tony who despite his family's disdain for the Irish, has a "thing" for Irish girls.

Their relationship, like all the relationships in this book, is subtle.  There are no dramatic moments when my heart beat out of my chest, but I was rapt to find out what would become of them.  That is the true art of what Toibin's book brings.  It doesn't go about shouting and showing off.  It's the strength of the ordinary that draws in the reader and holds her there until the ending.

Eilis returns to Ireland to attend a funeral and finds herself in a few more dilemmas involving her mother wanting her to remain there and her mother's stoicism.  She also begins a relationship with a charismatic man and puts herself in a situation where she needs to decide where her loyalties will reside.  Where will home be? What in our lives is worth our attachments and what should we abandon to grow and move on? What is love and how does it pull us in different directions? Most importantly what constitutes home?

These are the questions that "Brooklyn" examines quietly in the ordinary life of an ordinary girl.

For me, this is the perfect book for a fall weekend with a cup of tea, and a nice big fuzzy blanket which may not sound like a big adventure but there is beauty in the ordinary days of our lives.

 (credit given to Jo for so nicely giving me this book when I told her I was in a reading dry spell).