We Are Not Ourselves, a 620-page saga of three generations in an Irish-American family from Queens, New York, took over a decade to write and netted a reported seven-figure advance for debut novelist Matthew Thomas.
Thomas was thinking big when he began. “I always wanted to write something somewhat sweeping,” he says. “Towards the beginning, the efforts were discouraging. You think that you might just want to do a truncated version of what you set out to do—and you always do, anyway, the book is never exactly what you imagine it will be—but I had in mind something big. I tried to make it as short as I could and still tell the story I needed to tell.”
Thomas was raised in Queens, a generation after We Are Not Ourselves’ protagonist Eileen Tumulty. Circa 1951, 10-year-old Eileen possesses a maturity that belies her years, already operating in a caregiving capacity for a pair of alcoholic parents in rough and rowdy Woodside. On a trip to Jackson Heights to see her father’s friend, the superintendent of a stately co-op apartment complex with verdant lawns, she has a life-changing epiphany:
“She felt an amazing peace. There were no cars rushing around, no people pushing shopping carts homes. One old lady waved to her before disappearing inside....The people who lived in this building had figured out something important about life, and she’d stumbled upon their secret. There were places, she now saw, that contained more happiness than ordinary places did,” Thomas writes.
Eileen yearns for the stability conferred by success—specifically, a large landscaped house in a tony suburb—and charts her course accordingly. To that end, she enrolls in nursing school and takes up with a serious-minded scientist named Ed Leary, who shares her background and, seemingly, her goals. When son Connell arrives, Eileen’s aspirations redouble, leading to tension with Ed, whose idealism leads to a professorial job that fails to realize his earning potential.
Sadly, Ed’s holding pattern proves to be about more than idealism. He’s slowly losing his mind to early onset Alzheimer’s, a descent Thomas renders in heartrending detail informed by personal experience. His father died from the disease in 2002.
“It was very painful. He died at 62 after more than a decade with the disease. I don’t think I could have written [it] without having had the experience,” he says. “To have something like that happen to somebody in your family—if this book does any kind of work, I hope it’s possible to give those people a feeling of being less alone. If I could help somebody with that experience, I’d be really grateful.”
Ed’s illness resonates deeply in the narrative of Connell, who, like his mother, is forced to grow up fast. He struggles to become the man his parents want and need him to be from adolescence through adulthood, finally finding success as a teacher, like his father.
“Empathy. He hasn’t always had it. It was a muscle you had to develop and then keep conditioned,” Thomas writes. “Sometimes he thought his real goal wasn’t to teach them to write better essays but to get them to think more about what it meant to be human.”
The ease with which readers will empathize with Eileen, Ed and Connellis a testament to Thomas’ achievement. “That [the book] made somebody feel something and that they were transported by it, for a while, out of their lives,” Thomas says, would be the highest compliment a reader could pay—and it’s one he should receive frequently.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.