Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"We Are Not Ourselves," by Matthew Thomas

I had read good reviews of Matthew Thomas’ novel “We Are Not Ourselves” (Simon & Schuster, 2014), so I requested it from my wonderful local library. When I picked it up, I was a bit daunted to see that it is 620 pages long. I am fine with long books, but only if they are very good, and I wasn't sure about this one. I decided I would just begin reading, and gave myself permission to stop reading and return the book to the library if I was not enjoying it after the first 50-100 pages. Well, since I am writing about it here, readers can probably guess what happened: I was soon drawn in to the story, and kept reading. However, I have to say it was a struggle at times. Sometimes I was enjoying it and/or absorbed in it, while other times I was very tempted to stop, or to skip to the end. Why? The novel focuses on many themes in which I am interested, including social class and social mobility, the limitations put on women in the middle of the 20th century, family, illness, and work. The events of the novel take place in some less fashionable areas of New York City, and over the time period of 1951 to 2011. The writing is quite good, and the characters are well drawn. But the aspect that I struggled with was that the main character, Eileen, is so unhappy, and that her unhappiness is like an extended pall over the novel, too drawn out and too ever-present. Eileen comes from a sort of genteel poverty exacerbated by alcoholism in her family of origin, manages to find her way out of it, marries and has a child, has a successful career, but is never really happy with her life. She always feels that others have more, and that she is not allowed to have more, and when she does, it is never enough. For example, she cares deeply about which neighborhood she lives in, and what kind of house she can acquire and live in; these have tremendous symbolic value to her. And then her little family -- her husband Ed, her son Connell, and Eileen herself -- is slowly devastated by a calamitous illness. Eileen keeps working hard, making it all work as well as possible, taking care of everyone, taking care of business. She is a strong, strong woman, but only late in life does she find a measure of peace and happiness. The relentlessness of her unhappiness up to that point was hard to read about, even when I had to admire her sheer hard work and refusal to let anything defeat her. And I think the novel would have been as good or better if the author had trimmed it by perhaps a quarter of its length. (As I said, I am fine with long novels, but the length has to be justified by the needs of the specific novel, and I don't think that is the case here.) That said: Despite my struggles to get through it, I do think it is a good novel. So I honestly don’t know whether to recommend the book to readers or not.
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