We Are Not Ourselves is a 620-page account of one woman’s life in New York City; the book details her impoverished childhood (with alcoholic Irish parents) and continues to find Eileen struggling with her husband’s dementia. It is a book that deals with the effects of Americans who aren’t able to live up to American Dream, even when they thought they would be rich and happy. From this perspective it is easy to see why the author thought it necessary to detail Eileen’s life in its entirety: we see her expectations and dreams slowly fading away. This effect is built up well throughout the book. But because I am not particularly interested in The American Dream and people who fail to live up it, this book falls a little flat; in other words, because Eileen’s life doesn’t live up to her expectations the book doesn’t really seem to go anywhere.
Thomas is an engaging writer. His prose flows well, and even though the book was often bleak I felt like continuing with it. He sensitively navigates Eileen’s husband’s descent into Alzheimer’s. This book is all about subtlety, all about how things can slip and how life can turn into something unexpected. And, of course, Alzheimer’s is notoriously unpredictable; but as a society we will have to get more and more used to it.
This book was written from a very close third-person perspective. Eileen is followed, her memories seen, but I felt that the reader doesn’t get enough glimpses into her mind. We get some painfully honest thoughts, but they were usually when she was speaking to somebody. There are snatches of lives here, some good characterisation, but I want books to do something different to film. I find at the moment that I want books to shock me with their honesty, and I felt as if I’d read this book before.
I can’t help but feel that if this were written by a woman it wouldn’t be as highly praised; it would be advertised, perhaps, as a run-of-the-mill family saga. Of course, this isn’t the author’s fault. If you like Jonathan Franzen then you will probably enjoy this, but I don’t find family intrigues used as metaphor for the state of the nation very interesting. We Are Not Ourselves also reminded me in part of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: Irish immigrants in New York in the 20th Century had similar stories. Ultimately, I think that this book would have been much better if it were a lot shorter.