We Are Not Ourselves

Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves
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We Are Not Ourselves

Matthew Thomas


Eileen Leary wants more. Raised in a downtrodden area of new York by hard-drinking, Irish immigrant parents, she dreams of another life: a better job, a bigger house, more respectable friends, a happy family. When she meets Ed Leary, a brilliant young scientist, she thinks she’s found the perfect partner to pursue and share her American Dream with. An indefatigable love enters Eileen’s life - but so too does a pervasive darkness and a loss that will last a lifetime.

‘A long gorgeous epic, full of love and life and caring …one of the best novels you’ll read this year’ New York Times

‘It’s all here: how we live, how we love, how we die, how we carry on …It’s humbling and heartening to read a book this good’ Joshua Ferris


We Are Not Ourselves, Michael Thomas’s debut novel, caused quite a stir at the London Book Fair last year, sparking a bidding war between UK and US publishers for the rights. There was much competition among Readings staff, too, with several of us putting our hands up for the opportunity to write this review.

We Are Not Ourselves follows the life of Eileen Tumulty, born to Irish parents and brought up in the New York City borough of Queens. From an early age, Eileen is determined to better herself and rise above her humble beginnings. She meets and marries Ed Leary, a young scientist, believing he is the key to her escape. What Eileen slowly and painstakingly begins to realise is that Ed does not share her desire to become upwardly mobile. While Eileen forges ahead in her career, Ed plods along, refusing to take up any offers of promotion. When the couple eventually have a child, Eileen transfers some of her ambitions to her son. She dreams of moving her family to a leafier suburb and does, in the end, get her way. Though, just as things seem to be looking up, Ed is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

I love a good Irish–American saga, and I was looking forward to reading something of the calibre of a Colm Tóibín, Sebastian Barry or Colum McCann novel. I’m afraid my enthusiasm diminished, somewhat, when I was handed an advance copy of 620 pages! As it turns out, the length of the novel is its major flaw. I struggled to feel any of the sympathy for Thomas’s characters that the likes of Tóibín are able to evoke. Thomas seems to dwell forever on the differences between Eileen’s and Ed’s ambitions, repeating similar scenes of Eileen’s frustration with her husband over and over again, leaving this reader frustrated with the pair of them! Around halfway through, I had lost interest in Eileen’s life and was wondering whether I should bother to continue reading. Fortunately, I didn’t give up, and the story, while not really picking up any pace, did become more engrossing.

Sharon Peterson is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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