I am reading several books at once, as I often do, but I am not feeling frantic and stressed about finishing them, as I sometimes do. Without that stressed feeling, reading lots of books at once is great. It’s like mingling at a party, except that it’s much better than mingling at a party because it requires very little contact with actual fellow humans. Plus at parties it is often so difficult to park.
I’ve been feeling under the weather yesterday and today. I can’t figure out if I’m sick with something infectious, but I had a fever last night and this morning and have had a terrible headache, and I feel so tired I can barely get out of bed. I slept just about all afternoon, and when I woke up, I started Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, thinking that if I read nonstop I might be able finish it in time to review it tonight (it’s very short). Nice idea, sure – but my headache wasn’t having it, so I had to cut the activity short. I’ll tell you about Cassandra at the Wedding on Sunday or Monday, but for now I thought I would check in about Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves – a new release that made headlines a few months ago by earning its author a record-setting seven-figure advance from his publisher. So of course I had to check it out and see what a million-dollar book is like (or, more correctly, what a million-dollar book that doesn’t involve Hillary Clinton is like).
We Are Not Ourselves is a lovely novel. I don’t have any complaints about it, but I do have a few – well – concerns. In some of these cases, I think the novel may resolve them, and in other cases I think the fault may lie in me as a reader rather than in Matthew Thomas as a writer. So if you’re looking for the very short version of this review, here it is: it’s a good book. Read it if you so desire.
This novel spends more time “telling” as opposed to “showing” than is usually allowed in contemporary fiction. The point of view is omniscient – in that many different characters are given the chance to tell the story – and Thomas spends a lot of time summarizing internal monologue. This is sort of a risky thing to do nowadays, which is why it stands out to me – but I don’t dislike it.
There is something fishy going on when it comes to the novel’s placement in time. For the first hundred pages or so I felt as if I were reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – same tenement life with no frills, same hard-drinking but good-natured Irish immigrant father, same smart, determined young female protagonist. This is not a bad thing, and I do love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – but then the protagonist (Eileen) gets married and all of a sudden it’s the mid-seventies. I honestly think this is my own failure as a reader. I latched on to the comparison to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn early on, and then my mind kept on filling in all the empty places with details from the turn of the century. What’s that called in psychology – the completion of a gestalt?
I’m on page 216 (out of 620) of the novel, and all is not well in the Leary family (which consists of Eileen, husband Ed, and son Connell). Eileen is hard-working, rigidly disciplined, and determined to be upwardly mobile; she would fit in well in an Alice Munro story or an Updike novel, though in Munro she would be the heroine of the story and in Updike she would be the antagonist. She hates their current house and believes (for reasons both racist and non-racist) that the neighborhood is going sharply downhill. Ed, who has never cared much about possessions and drove his wife crazy roundabout page 120 by turning down prestigious jobs at chemical companies and prestigious universities in order to teach at a community college in the Bronx. He refuses to even consider moving, and for the past 60 pages or so the only thing he ever does when he is home is listen to music on headphones, so Eileen has made 14 year-old Connell her ally in her determination to buy a new house in the suburbs. Eileen hasn’t put two and two together yet, but there have been several incidents that suggest to me that Ed is showing signs of early Alzheimer’s or some other serious neurological problem, and as I read I keep whispering to Eileen, Don’t do it. Stay in your house – it’s not that bad. Pay attention to Ed. Very, very, very bad things will happen if you don’t.
I am not usually one for talking to fictional characters, and when I do, it’s a pretty clear indication that the book is a good one. More later.
My boss just finished my copy of this book and said she really did not like the main character, and that made her like the book much less than she thought she would have otherwise. Do you like this Eileen person?
I don’t know how much I like Eileen, but I do sympathize with her, and she is very well drawn as a character. I don’t put a lot of weight on liking protagonists most of the time. I do have an issue that is probably related to your boss’s, though. Eileen is extremely disciplined and emotionally controlled and rigid, and as a result the novel is sometimes emotionally controlled and rigid. I’m around page 350 now and I want the novel to go on a drunken joyride sometime soon. But it’s still a really good book.