Growing up in a poor, Irish-American family, Eileen Tumulty dreamed of a better, more generically American life: one that would enable her to shed her family name that connotes her unstable, tumultuous circumstances. As a little girl, she was forced into the tiresome, repetitious role of carer for her parents, leading to her almost inevitable future as a nurse. She meets Ed Leary, her future husband, on a blind date set up by her roommate. Although she had low hopes for anything substantive to come of the New Year’s Eve get together, she is pleasantly surprised when she meets him, finding him ambitious, thoughtful and considerate. Her feelings intensify when he whispers in her ear, ‘I realise you didn’t have to do this, and I promise to try to make it worth your time.’ She falls in love with him, something she didn’t think she was capable of doing. Despite his similar upbringing, he seems to fit her aspirations for her future, as she sees his potential for success and wealth: ingredients with which to build a stable, comfortable life. Her attraction to him is a reaction against her father, who stands for everything she is trying to run away from: he is most interested in social status and personal relationships, on being ‘the big man’; Ed, on the other hand, is uninterested in having a popular reputation in the community, focusing only on his neuroscientific research. At least he appears to appreciate Eileen, unlike her father, who barely notices her. However, when obsessively pursuing his projects, he often neglects the people around him, ironically not unlike the way her father treated her when she was a child. In time, Eileen realises they have different aspirations, and want different things from life: when Merck offers him a job, including a lab of his own, state-of-the-art equipment and a team of assistants, he rejects it for fear of becoming their puppet, instead opting for a modest career in teaching. His most important virtue in life is integrity, whilst Eileen holds success and growth as higher priorities. A little while after their son Connel is born, the narrative is split between him and his mother. In contrast to Eileen’s worrisome, supportive attitude, Connel’s narrative consists of his somewhat self-absorbed views and experiences of life in the Leary family. When Ed starts to act strange, Eileen and Connel feel confused and isolated; their insights on Ed’s slow deterioration are personable glimpses of living with someone with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
We Are Not Ourselves is eloquently, elegantly written, with mostly short sentences strung together that have a flowing, enticing effect on the reader. I was, at least in the beginning, so absorbed in the book that I felt as though I was Eileen, living through all her hardships and aspirations. Although effective, as this forced me to experience the persistent challenges that Eileen faced, this also meant that it made for quite a depressing read, as it was long, slow-paced and tiresome. Consequently, events in the book affected me less and less, despite their seemingly increasing importance. Additionally, characters that were intended to be interesting underwhelmed me: Connel’s self-absorbed, under-achieving ways irritated me, rather than made me sympathize with him, and although Ed is enigmatic, I was not intrigued to know more about him. A development near the end does humanise Ed, but too little, too late. While I understand why it had to be so long, as its setting stretches over more than half a century, and the author does try to make the book more palatable by separating it into sections, I nonetheless feel it’s too lengthy, as I became progressively more fatigued by the book’s length and Eileen’s repetitive existence. Overall, a great, well-written book, but one that I struggled to persevere with.
I would recommend this book to people who are interested in familial relationships, and a ‘real’ love story, not a romantic fantasy. It’s good for people who don’t mind a long, slow-paced book, one that doesn’t seem rewarding of uplifting until the end.
My Ratings (out of 10 As):