Thursday, January 28, 2021

Book 269: We Are Not Ourselves

"She wanted to be in one of those scenes in the windows, frozen in time, in the faultless harmony of parts working in concert, fulfilling the plan of a guiding, designing hand. It would be lovely not to have to make every decision in life, to be part of a spectacle brought out once a year, for the safest of seasons, and put to work amusing people who stared back in mute appreciation. The real world was so messy, the light imperfect, the paint chipped, the happiness only partial."

Dates read: October 15-21, 2018

Rating: 4/10

It can be tempting to think that you can buy your way to happiness. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has a little section of her closet devoted to the things that seemed so right when they were purchased and never quite panned out. There's a rush that comes with hitting the "check out" button, in triumphantly carting your finds up to the register. The little buzz of acquisition. It hits the reward centers in our brains.

It's that intrinsic feedback loop that makes humans such good little consumers, and of course Western culture has figured out how to play off that susceptibility expertly. It's no mistake that the much-vaunted American Dream is ultimately the pursuit of...stuff. Homes, cars, the latest toys for the kids. With her hardscrabble childhood, it's no wonder that Eileen Tumulty, protagonist of Matthew Thomas' We Are Not Ourselves, gives in completely to the siren song of that American Dream. Her Irish immigrant parents are poor and both struggle with addiction, but raise Eileen to set her sights higher. Indeed, as she grows up, she becomes almost paralyzingly envious of anyone who gets the access to privileges she herself longs for. She dreams of marrying rich to allow her to live a life of ease, but can't stand any of the men who could make this happen. Instead, she falls for a brilliant young scientist, Ed Leary, and they're hopeful for a bright future together.

But a bright future looks different to each of them. Eileen despairs when Ed turns down opportunities to go into pharmaceutical development or be promoted into administration, seeking only to be a good teacher to the community college students who enter his classroom. They have a child, Connell, and eventually buy the multi-family home in which they live, but it's not enough for Eileen. As they approach 50, she becomes obsessed with the idea of buying a new home, just for them, in a fancier (read: whiter) neighborhood of New York City. So obsessed, in fact, that she ignores her husband's increasingly odd behavior. Once she's finally managed to buy them a fixer-upper in the right zip code, she can't ignore it anymore: something is very wrong with Ed. Something that threatens to tear their family apart.

I'm usually a sucker for a family saga, especially one that immerses itself in one central character over time. And the portrait Thomas paints of Eileen feels real. She's very much a product of her childhood and her culture. Aging is no guarantee of personal growth, and while she does make some minor self-modifications, she remains consistent at her core. That's about all the praise I can offer this novel. Because while Eileen feels real and well-characterized, she's also deeply unpleasant and honestly boring. I'm not a person who needs characters to be likable in order to appreciate a book, but I do need them to be interesting. Eileen's concerns are so petty and small and pedestrian, and she's so personally cold (almost every reference she makes to her only child is as "the boy", with virtually no affection), that she's just tedious to spend time with.

And since the book is almost entirely from her perspective, that's a problem. We do get some portions from Connell, but his characterization is nowhere as good as Eileen's, and I think the book would have been stronger without those chapters entirely. The person from whom we never hear, and who I found myself the most interested in, was Ed himself. Why did he stay with Eileen? A sense of duty to keep the family together while their son grew up? I can understand that his perspective during his decline would have been difficult to write, but he never quite made sense to me even before. And once his decline begins, the book turns into tragedy porn. I think the reader is meant to feel for Eileen, but she'd been built up as a shallow, grasping asshole so thoroughly by that point that even her devotion to Ed didn't redeem her. Thomas had plenty of ambition here, with the scope and scale of the book he wanted to write, but he came nowhere close to achieving it. His skill with prose and characterization are real, but he undermined himself with the character he created. All I could think at the end was how much I hated her and how glad I was to be done reading about her. Needless to say, I do not recommend this book. 

One year ago, I was reading: Perfume

Two years ago, I was reading: Hausfrau

Three years ago, I was reading: Mansfield Park

Four years ago, I was reading: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Five years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

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