Recommending any novel is a hard sell in our smart phone-addled culture, but how about a 620-page doorstop about early onset Alzheimer’s? A book with no high drama or plot twists or (dare I say) any lasting insights into the human condition, but rather merely a story about an ordinary family dealing with this horrific disease? Where faith offers little or no consolation?
From the first line of We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas, God is felt by his absence: “Instead of going to the priest, the men who gathered at Doherty’s Bar after went to see Eileen Tumulty’s father.” It’s 1951, we are among the immigrant Irish Catholics of Woodside, Queens, where we meet the fourth grader Eileen at the bar admiring her father holding court. “There was something clarifying in her father’s authority; it absolved other men of embarrassment.” Indeed, when one of the petitioners confesses he’s been cheating on his wife, Eileen’s father, after making sure he has the facts straight, absolves the man with severe efficiency: “Swear before God that’s the end of it,” and the man does, glad to admit he is a damn fool.
Ah, this is good and satisfying. We are eager and willing to embark on this family epic as we watch Thomas, like an expert bricklayer, carefully lay his foundation, beginning with Eileen’s observations of her father.
Everyone called him Big Mike. He was reputed to be immune to pain. He had shoulders so broad that even in shirtsleeves he looked like he was wearing a suit jacket.… If you caught him in a moment of repose, he seemed to shrink to normal proportions. If you had something to hide, he grew in front of your eyes.
Yes, this is good. The clarity, specificity and concreteness of the detail—it’s all here, beautifully written and necessary, but then Thomas attempts to summarize Eileen’s observation of her father and his admirers:
She wasn’t too young to understand that the ones who pleased him were the rare ones who didn’t drain the frothy brew of his myth in a quick quaff, but nosed around the brine of his humanity awhile, giving it skeptical sniffs.
“Frothy brew of his myth?” “Brine of his humanity?” “Skeptical sniffs?” So early in a long book, these overwritten abstractions—attributed to a fourth grader no less—are enough to sow a seed of disappointment that the book will not fulfill its promise. Regardless, if we don’t have a text to reply to, we press onward.
Eileen spends her childhood nursing her alcoholic mother while longing for a way out of her one bedroom apartment in Queens. She is resourceful and goal-oriented, convinced her ticket out is to study hard, become a nurse administrator and marry an intelligent, kind and (she hopes) ambitious man, like Ed, a quirky scientist. But Eileen’s life doesn’t proceed as planned: Ed turns down lucrative job offers to leave his position at the community college. He doesn’t want to move—as she so desperately does—to Westchester, but stay in their decaying neighborhood of Jackson Heights. And as the years go on, he becomes increasingly eccentric in maddening ways that frustrate Eileen and their one son, Connell, neither of whom see that Ed’s quirks are signs of his impending disintegration. It’s like reading a very real horror story as we witness the increasing strains on their family until at last Ed’s diagnosis becomes evident, then for many years more, we watch as Alzheimer’s increasingly erodes his ability to function in terrible and unpredictable ways.
During his erratic wanderings in town, Ed finds his way into the church between Masses because it’s quiet and calm. Though the thought of him alone in a big church oppresses Eileen, who has given up on the faith of her youth, she writes out a prayer for him.
“Dear God,” she wrote, “I will offer this up to you without complaint, but please protect all I know and love.” She copied it out neatly onto an index card that she folded and put in his wallet.
Groping to understand why this happened to her husband, Eileen doesn’t care for the secular answers, that “it was random, senseless, genetic, environmental,” nor can she “sign up for any system that said it had all happened for a reason.” She’s more pragmatic, or so she tells herself.
It hadn’t happened for a reason, but they would find something to glean from it anyway. There didn’t have to be a divine plan for there to be meaning in life. People’s lives will be better because of his illness, she told herself. They’ll appreciate life more. He’ll remind them that their lives are better than they think. It was as good a story as any, and it had the virtue of often seeming plausible, though never when she lay awake at night, when the public life faded away, and other people vanished, and she was left staring at the back of her hand and thinking, All of this is an illusion, even the consolations.
Yes, the novel is long. And at times, like life, it is sometimes hard to understand where the story is going. And while the writing is consistently a pleasure to read, every so often you trip on another patch of overwrought prose like this one—“they gave out no manual for when you get married, no emergency kit with a flashlight for when the power went out. You had to feel your way around in the dark for the box of matches.” But the more these lives seep into you, the harder it is to find fault. On the contrary, there seems something right and true and even comforting about even these awkward passages, however trite they may be. Isn’t that what we all do in times of crisis, grope for meaning? Yes, of course, there is no manual for when you are married, for when your family faces a crisis or for when your loved one gets a terrible illness. But however trite it may sound, a rare novel like this that convincingly tells the story of a very real tragedy might be the next best thing.