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.

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