What Matters Most in Life: We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is frequently touted as a novel about the American Dream but I’d like to think of it as a story about what it means to define meaning and happiness in one’s life, and that’s something that anyone – American or not, immigrant or not – can relate to.

Eileen Tumulty was born to poor and alcoholic Irish immigrants in Queens, New York. She was a hard worker and grew up with ambitious dreams. She wanted to make a life of which she’d be proud and in which she’d be happy and secure, and that included succeeding in her own career and marrying well, preferably to someone who wasn’t Irish. Well, things don’t work out exactly according to plan in terms of marriage, as she ends up falling in love with Ed Leary, another Irish-American. But he is kind and he is an academic – a promising scientist and professor – and so she optimistically begins her life with him. They eventually have a son, after years of battling fertility issues.

As Eileen rises in the ranks as a nurse, Ed receives but turns down opportunities to rise in the way that she wants him to. Instead of taking a position at a lucrative pharmaceuticals company (if I remember correctly), he decides to take a teaching position at a community college. Later, instead of seizing a chance to move to the prestigious NYU (New York University), he chooses to stay at the community college. His decisions exasperate Eileen to no end, who has visions of continuously climbing “up” in life. She is also secretly annoyed at the “browning” of her neighborhood and yearns to move into a more affluent and higher status part of town. Ed is adamant about staying where they are. Without his knowledge, Eileen begins visiting dream houses with a real estate agent.

Then one day they receive devastating news, and the rest of the book centers around this seismic shift in their family. It’s an event that causes Eileen to look back on her life and to question her long-held assumptions about what is important to her.

This is a lovely story about so many things, in particular the struggle to marry one’s dreams and definition of happiness with that of one’s partner. It is also about marriage and parenting and the sacrifices and endurance that both require. In my quick summary I don’t think I paint a very appealing portrait of Eileen, but she is a more complex and sympathetic character than what you see here. She’s got a lot of grit and she is tremendously devoted to her family. I find her quite realistic.

At over 600 pages long, the book is also a surprisingly easy and quick read for the most part. I will say that I started to lose steam at around page 400, so I guess I felt it was about 150 pages too long. The story moves along at the pace of life, and though it’s been described as an “epic,” it is a quiet story about an ordinary family. This is not one of those sprawling sagas spanning generations and filled with family secrets and twists and turns. The Learys’ story could be any family’s story.

So I was not the most enthusiastic reader during those last 200 pages, until I came upon this, something that Ed says to his son Connell:

Picture yourself in one of your cross-country races. It’s a hard pace this day. Everyone’s outrunning you. You’re tired, you didn’t sleep enough, you’re hungry, your head is down, you’re preparing for defeat. You want much from life, and life will give you much, but there are things it won’t give you, and victory today is one of them. This will be one defeat; more will follow. Victories will follow too. You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not. (page 594)

In my opinion, this is as much a message to Eileen as it is to Connell. We have to accept that life will not give us everything we want.

You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.

And sometimes people, books, words, etc. have a way of finding you when you need them most. I was going through a soul searching struggle in my parenting, trying to break the cycle of severe self-criticism that extended to my parenting, and these lines almost brought me to tears.

17 thoughts on “What Matters Most in Life: We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

  1. Wow – this sounds wonderful (and challenging)! My husband and I are always talking about what our expectations should be for the house we buy someday, for our careers… especially living in Southern California. 🙂 I think you did a good job of conveying Eileen’s complexity. She sounds like a modern Scarlett O’Hara.

    • That is so smart of you and your husband to be talking about these things, Ariel. I wonder how many couples go into their marriages just assuming they share the same ideas. I think I probably did that to some extent, and in part because it was a scary thing to think about – the possibility that our dreams might just be different. Anyway, interesting comparison to Scarlett O’Hara! Yes, I would agree 🙂

  2. This sounds like a beautiful, yet hard story of an ordinary family. I love those kinds of stories. I love what you say about the “struggle to marry one’s dreams and definition of happiness with that of your partner’s”. So hard to do. How can you know them all going into a marriage, especially when they change over time? This is one reason marriages can be such hard work. And, I do love when the right words/books hit you at the right time. Or, even when the messages in the book just remind you of better ways to live your life. The best reason for reading!

    • YES to this: “How can you know them all going into a marriage, especially when they change over time? This is one reason marriages can be such hard work.” So, so true, Naomi. There are so many things we don’t even think about in the beginning, or we may have the same ideas in theory but then when it comes right down to it things play out differently than we expect. Like parenting (for us). We didn’t realize how much our past baggage would come back to haunt us. This is definitely a story of how two people will do what they can to make a marriage work.

  3. It sounds like this book did resonate with you, even though the book dragged for a bit. Sometimes it is the simplest of stories, about ordinary couples, parents, children, that hold the most complexity for me because they are the closest to the truth, the reality of life. I’ve been curious about this book and thank you for your honest review. I think I would enjoy it and will look for it at the library.

    • So true, Ngan! Sometimes it would be fun to read an escapist novel but for the most part I do really enjoy these realistic stories about life and family. Even if things are different one can usually find something that s/he can relate to. I hope you will enjoy it if you do end up reading it.

    • I agree. Thanks so much for stopping by! (And I’m sorry for this late response to your comment! I seem to only be able to work on my blog about once a week these days.)

  4. I just finished this book, I picked it up after I saw you mention it. I loved it. I loved every page of it and am so sad it’s over. It was beautiful. I’m so glad you mentioned it here. I can’t stop thinking about it.

    • I’m so glad you picked up the book and loved it! That’s an amazing reading experience, when you can’t stop thinking about the book. I’m so happy to hear it!

  5. The themes in this book sound complex, but rewarding. I am always weary of longer reads because it is such a time commitment, but this book sounds like it is worth the investment. Thanks, Cecilia.

  6. I really, really enjoyed this book. I found the questions it asked about life really apt and the letter from Ed at the end very moving.

    I liked Eileen as she was a contrast to many heroines in recent Irish literature like Roseanne McNulty in the Secret Scripture and Lucy Gault in the Story of Lucy Gault. Those two seemed like hostages to fortune – they seemed so passive, even though their circumstances were very unlucky. I admired Eileen’s spirit and her efforts to create a secure middle class life for her family – who doesn’t want that?

    I admired Eileen’s spirit in We Are Not Ourselves, I felt she was much more similar to the strong Irishwomen I know. I’m not sure about the Scarlett O’Hara reference – Scarlett traded more on her looks than Eileen. I found Eileen much more sympathetic then Scarlett.

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