Sometimes the best writing is the simplest. That’s easy to forget at a time when buzzy debut novels rely on whiplash plot twists, structural acrobatics, or other gimmicks that say, ”This isn’t just a book — it’s art.” Somehow it’s all the more satisfying that Matthew Thomas’ absolutely devastating debut is a very traditional novel written with minimal flair.
Born in Queens in 1941, Thomas’ main character, Eileen Tumulty, plays caretaker to her alcoholic mother and father from an early age. As the daughter of Irish immigrants, she works hard to create a better life for herself than the ones her working-class parents led. She does well in school, gets a job as a nurse, marries an ambitious young scientist, gives birth to a son, moves to a middle-class neighborhood she can’t quite afford, and struggles to keep up appearances when her family starts to fall apart, financially and psychologically. As Thomas follows her through six decades, Eileen emerges as a richly observed character, a fascinating case study whose path shows how immigration, suburbanization, and upward mobility changed many American families after World War II. This isn’t just Eileen’s story. It’s the story of the so-called Silent Generation.
It’s also a gripping family saga, maybe the best I’ve read since The Corrections. The storytelling is straightforward, and the writing is lovely. Eileen’s innermost thoughts about marriage and motherhood are so believable it’s surprising that a man created her — though anyone who knows what it’s like to be haunted by your parents’ ambitions will relate to her. We Are Not Ourselves is a very moving book about the dangers of always wanting more. Thomas understands the problem with the American dream: Once you get close to achieving it, it can’t be a dream anymore. A
Memorable Line: ”The smell of the past, that irrepressible smoke, was spoiling the air between them, where, in the absence of others to filter it, an acrid cloud now hung.”