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Stop Making Sense

I read anything that's nailed down, or even just moving slowly. Cereal boxes, candy wrappers, all genres, etc., and I don't always have much time for arbitrary distinctions like literary fiction vs. genre fiction.

Stunning novel, and it's a debut?!

We Are Not Ourselves - Matthew   Thomas

[Thank you to LibraryThing and Simon & Schuster for this advance copy.]


We Are Not Ourselves is a stunning novel, and it almost defies belief that it is a debut effort. (Although the publisher does state that he had already put two other novels in a drawer before this one.) It tells the story of three generations of Irish-Americans in Queens who are linked through Eileen--the daughter, the wife, the nurse, and the mother. As such, it is the classic story of immigrants in the U.S.: disoriented at first, but then adapting, integrating, and thriving (one hopes).


But it is also the story of Eileen's relationships with the men in her life: her father, "Big Mike," who is the godfather (in the Mario Puzo sense) of their community; her husband Ed, a brilliant but unambitious academic and neuroscientist; and her son Connell, who bears the legacy of both of his parents.


And it is also the story of a George Baileyesque character from It's a Wonderful Life, in which every time he thinks he's on the brink of getting what he wants, it's taken away, but he ends up richer for it.


If you read this book for no other reason, read it for the evocative and beautiful language:


  • "The tree was heavy with ornaments, strings of lights, and tinsel clumped thick as cooked spinach."
  • "She had worked hard for years, and if she had nothing to show for it but her house and her son's education, there was still the fact of its having happened, which no one could erase from the record of human lives, even if no one was keeping one."
  • "After a few months had passed, the cup of guilt he'd been carying around--for having gone away when his father needed him, for letting him go into a home--simply dried up, and he was left holding the empty vessel of his routine."
  • "...she patted the ground in search of pebbles to leave on the gravestone. It was a Jewish custom she had picked up like a magpie building a nest of grief."
  • "For now, while he breathed and moved, while he felt and thought, there was still, between this moment and the one of his dying, the interval allotted to him, and there was so much to live for in it: the citrus snap of fresh black tea; the compression and release of a warm stack of folded towels carried to the closet between two hands; the tinny resonance of children in the distance when heard through a bedroom window; the mouth-fullness of cannoli cream; the sudden twitch of a horse's ear to chase a fly; the neon green of the outfield grass; the map of wrinkles in one's own hand; the smell and feel, even the taste of dirt; the comfort of a body squeezed against one's own."


Now, having said all of that, a couple of caveats:

1. Be in a strong emotional place when you read it. I'm serious.

2. As epic as the book is (620 pages in my copy), there are a few places where the narrative jumps unexpectedly. If the book is truly Eileen's story, where are the details of her time in college? Surely there was some culture shock when she left her sheltered neighborhood and met students from other backgrounds, at least. There isn't much about her daily work, either--I think the book would have been stronger if we'd been shown how she became such a good nurse and supervisor, given the role this will play eventually.


Final word: I have a major collection of bookmarks--I seem to pick them up without realizing it, and then I can't get rid of them, because reasons. I didn't notice, until I was almost at the end of the book, that the one I had selected for this book said, "Life is under no obligation to give us what we expect--Margaret Mitchell." Uncanny how well it mirrors the theme of We Are Not Ourselves.