An Irish-American family in New York City pursues simple dreams in a long and only partially satisfying first novel.
Thomas' debut opens promisingly with the outsize character of Big Mike Tumulty, an Irish immigrant and bar-stool sage possessed of “a terrible charisma.” The humor and brisk pace of this well-drawn section too rarely recur in the many dry, dour pages that follow. Mike’s daughter and the book’s heroine, Eileen, arrives in 1941 and grows up in a household where affection and money are scarce. She pursues a nursing career, marries a teacher named Ed Leary and has a son, Connell. Eileen is driven to improve their housing, from rented rooms in a multifamily Queens home to owning that home and finally the big move to the costly suburb of Bronxville. Only a few pages later, at the book’s midpoint, they learn that Ed, at 51, has early-onset Alzheimer’s, “the most virulent kind….It dismantles motor functions and speech as it erases the memory.” Thomas, who has relied to this point on thinly linked vignettes, is most effective in the sustained picture of Ed’s terrible decline and Eileen’s fierce struggle to maintain his dignity and her control. And a story almost painfully confined to the family trio now acquires a couple of colorful characters in a healer who speaks through the spirit Vywamus and a hired man named Sergei who offers strength and the chance of new passion.
Despite its epic size and aspirations, the novel is underpopulated and often underwritten, a quality that does make its richer moments stand out while stoking the appetite for more of those in fewer pages.