Wednesday, November 19, 2014

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

This book took a while to grow on me; though I did really enjoy it once I got into it.  I think the beginning could have been condensed quite a bit without losing much that was vital to the narrative.

Eileen Leary is born in 1941 in Queens.  She lives with her parents in a small apartment.  Both parents go through periods of drunkenness so she becomes their caretaker from a very early age.  She also dreams of a much better life - an education, a career and a house all her own.  She also wants to escape the Irish immigrant image she's grown up with.

At a young age she trains to be a nurse and meets Ed Leary and decides to marry him despite his Irish sounding name, because he is a research scientist and very different from the "blue collar" men in her life.  They first move into one floor of a triplex, but even though Eileen is finally in a house in the neighbourhood she coveted, she is not happy.  She pushes Ed to accept higher positions though he's very satisfied with his research and teaching position at a local community college.  Even when the Leary's buy the triplex from its owners who fall upon hard times and revert to being tenants, Eileen becomes disenchanted with the neighbourhood as new immigrant populations move in and dreams of a large home in a suburb filled with "people like her".

Eileen and Ed have one son, Connell, and he becomes the next focus of all of Eileen's ambitions.  Eventually Eileen convinces Ed that they should move to a "fixer upper" in the suburbs.  But around that time, Ed develops bizarre behaviours.  It becomes obvious to the reader, and eventually Eileen, that there is something wrong with his mental faculties.  When he is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's the book becomes far more interesting.  Sorry if I ruined the suspense for you, but I felt it worth explaining why you should stick with the book.

Eileen's lifetime caregiving skills kick into play and she becomes far more sympathetic as she struggles to care for Ed, all the while supporting her family and dealing with her crumbling home.  Here, her strength of character shines through though we still get ample exposure to her flaws as well as Connell's.  The real beauty of this story is seeing how a family deals (and at times, doesn't) with a devastating disease that slowly robs Ed of everything.

If you have the time to work through the early stages of the book, it's definitely worth it in the end.

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