Since I’m returning to university for another graduate degree, I felt that it was time to do some more reading. (confession: I haven’t read a single novel of literary merit since completing my first MA two years ago, but of course the Overlord would get me back in the habit).
My book for September is We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, and I cried on eleven separate occasions while I read this book.
*Warning: There are spoilers ahead.*
My name is not Eileen Leary. I have never lived in New York.I am not the daughter of Irish immigrants, but I am the granddaughter of Norwegian ones. I will never be a nurse or have a son named Connell. I do not own my own house nor do I have any desire to purchase a fur coat. My ambition does not lie in physical possessions but intellectual accomplishments.
For all this, We Are Not Ourselves may be my own story.
Let me begin by saying that this book is absolutely worth every penny you spend on it. The writing, which reminds me a bit of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, catches you unawares, sneaks up on you and so subtly sinks its claws into you that you’re flipping the pages without knowing why throughout the beginning of the book. Sentences like, “She wanted a name that sounded like no name at all, one of those decorous placeholders that suggested an unbroken line of WASP restraint” resounded with me. I flipped the pages without true recognition of the book’s meaning. I experienced life with Eileen as she grew up–her insatiable desire to keep up appearances, her carefully calculated moves up the social and career ladders, and her staunch pride and loyalty to her husband and son–and I see myself in her ambition.
For all the limited 3rd person perspective we get from Eileen, the book is not about her. It is her life that tells the story in WANO, but it isn’t the only one. Eileen marries a man named Ed. They have a good life, even though Ed increasingly becomes “eccentric” and confused about simple things. The build up I have seen before, and time and again as I read, I made a point of telling anyone who would listen, “Ed’s life…it sounds so familiar.” About halfway through the book, Ed is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and I cried from reading the familiar words. When I was seven years old, my mother, a single mother of three children, took care of her own mother, even though my grandmother quickly declined to confused episodes in the supermarket and high-pitched screams of anger and frustration. Ed’s deterioration mirrored one that I saw firsthand, and how could I not help but cry my way through the remainder of the book?
She tried to imagine what it would feel like to have always been alone. She decided that being alone to begin with would be easier than being left alone. Everything would be easier than that. -Eileen, p.7
My mother often says that the most awful thing about Alzheimer’s is that it takes away the one you love before they’re really gone. We Are Not Ourselves walks us through every step of Eileen’s painful too-soon farewell to her husband and father of her son, and even so, that isn’t the extent of the book’s meaning. When I say this book may be my story, I mean that I could end up as any of the characters–Eileen, the long-suffering wife of an Alzheimer’s patient; Ed, whose slow decay reminds the reader how fragile life is; or Connell–who doesn’t understand until it’s almost too late. My genetics leave me echoing Eileen’s thoughts in chapter 44: Maybe Connell would get it. Maybe she would. One never knew. Now that was the truth.”
It’s a book about life, about death, about letting go. Most importantly, it’s a book that makes you realise that life isn’t always what you think it is. Or as Eileen says it in chapter 90:
The point wasn’t always to do what you want. The point was to do what you did and to do it well. She had worked hard for years, and if she had nothing to show for it but her house and her son’s education, there was still the fact of its having happened, which no one could erase from the record of human lives, even if no one was keeping one.
I would recommend this book based on the quality of the writing alone, mostly because to find such beautifully penned sentences is rare nowadays. However, I find that the best recommendation I can give is that it’s a book that will make you feel. It’s sad, yes, but more importantly, it feels real. The lives of Eileen Leary and her family could very well be our own. The title is more apt than you’d think at first glance: we are not ourselves.