We Are Not Ourselves is “an epic of small events,” David L. Ulin of the LA Times writes. “By that I don’t mean its story is insignificant but quotidian: the particular struggles of the day-to-day.”
This book, in short, is a middle class assimilation story. Eileen Tumulty has had an unfortunate childhood, forced into the role of caretaker by her alcoholic parents. All she wants is to get out, get married, and leave all that behind her. Soon, she meets Ed and they settle down together, but Eileen’s hunger for the good life is not satisfied. She finds herself always yearning for a more lavish lifestyle, while Ed insists on a modest one.
Warning: this book is sad. It is very sad. It was difficult to read the last 33% of the pages, but the plot was just engaging enough that I couldn’t just give up. I owed it to the full characters, the decadent but somehow concise prose, the overall craftsmanship of the novel to finish, and I’m glad I did. I came away with the feeling that We Are Not Ourselves is more than just a powerful story, it’s an important story that needed to be told, no matter how sad. If reading it made me uncomfortable, then I was supposed to be. There are different types of sad, though. There’s good-sad, which leaves the reader with a happy aftertaste, and there’s sad-sad, which is kind of depressing and kind of beautiful at the same time. This is the second kind of sad.
Thomas switches between narratives to tell the story, but uses mostly Eileen’s voice, and never Ed’s, which was a small bit frustrating because we never get to see what’s going on in his mind, what he’s thinking, his rationalization behind certain actions. That is how Eileen was feeling as well, so the choice adds a layer of sympathy. It also takes place over the course of an entire generation. The pacing is unconventional though, and skims over years at a time to focus on key moments in Eileen’s family life. I was happy to find that it takes place in and around Manhattan.
Looking back, I can see the events in the novel with more clarity. While I was reading, everything seemed like the Worst Thing Ever. I do have a tip for readers who want to take on Thomas:
Go back and read the one-page prologue after you finish the book.
Things I didn’t like:
I’m not going to be all praise. I had some deeply fundamental problems with We Are Not Ourselves. One of them is Eileen. Poor, ignorant Eileen- she seems to be under the impression that if she can just have a nice picket fence house, that she will be happy. Why does she think this? I do not know. Sure, she worked her way up from a working class home, eyes on the American Dream. But once she breaks through into the middle class, and finds a partner who actually lives up to her impossibly high standards, she is never content. The more Eileen reached for a nice home and stable job, the more frustrated I got, to the point where, in the last few sections, I could not sympathize with her anymore.
The other, bigger problem I have is with Thomas’s depiction of the younger generation. Alright, time to crack my knuckles and get down to it. I am 20 years old. I am in college, and heavily reliant on my family for monetary support. (Yeah, I said it!) Want to know why? I am entirely, 100% sure that at the level of quality education my university offers, I cannot hold down a job in addition to being a full-time student. Student life is hard enough, and I barely find a way to get by as it is. My mental health is a very fragile thing, as several of my professors can attest to.
Now here’s how Matthew Thomas describes young adolescents, the group as a whole: ungrateful, “entitled.” “This younger generation has no respect.” Irresponsible, unable to give anything up for what is morally right. Especially Connell, who knows that what he’s doing is the wrong thing, but he’s just too damn stubborn to stoop down and help out. This, frankly, is utter crap. Considering just last weekend was the Project for Awesome, where hundreds of young adults advocated for and participated in activist movements, I know that there is so much good in my peers. We can – we have made a difference for the positive. It makes me so sad to see this book filled with so much condescension. Yeah, we’re pretentious little shits. I get that. But we’re not bad people, and we do know right from wrong. It’s not like, after the age of 30, you suddenly stop making mistakes. It’s just that the mistakes you make in your 20s have a greater impact for some reason.