Saturday, November 22, 2014

Family Bonds

I can't really blame Eileen Tumulty, the main character in Matthew Thomas's debut novel We Are Not Ourselves. Growing up in the 50's in a blue collar Queens apartment with alcoholic parents whose marriage is fragile, it's only natural that she is determined to do better. So when she meets Ed Leary - intelligent, serious, reliable, a talented scientist - he seems the perfect choice. She envisions a bright and prosperous future with a home in her version of Shangri-La – Bronxville. Perhaps she misses some early clues that his seriousness might be tinged with rigidity, or that his idealism might conflict with her ambitions. When reality finally sets in, her desperation to get out of Queens causes her to commit an act of betrayal.

But she has little time to enjoy her Bronxville fixer-upper with Ed and son Connell before she is hit with a stark truth. Her fifty-two-year-old husband has Alzheimer's disease. As anyone who has dealt with it knows, the course of this disease is relentless, and Thomas's description is unsparing (his own father died from it in 2002). Connell stumbles badly in his attempts to face his father's illness and his mother's need for his help, and Eileen is no saint, but Thomas makes them sympathetic even in their failings. I have to admire Eileen's grit and determination in the face of the crushing obstacles she must tackle.

Thomas paints on a small canvas – his characters lead ordinary lives in a circumscribed world (he reminds me of Alice McDermott, who was once his teacher). But his characters have a resonance beyond their own small stage, and the title, taken from King Lear, expresses this well.

We are not ourselves
When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind
To suffer with the body.