We Are Not Ourselves

Written by Matthew Thomas
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

What are the effects of a devastating illness on a family? How does a family adapt to a new normal when nothing will ever be the same again? We Are Not Ourselves is a sweeping intergenerational saga of an Irish-American family living in Queens. At the center of the story is Eileen, who epitomizes a strong female character. Eileen’s hardscrabble origins, the daughter of alcoholics, ignited a spark in her, one that motivates her to claw her way out of her working class neighborhood. Eileen works as a nurse and is constantly encouraging her teacher husband, Ed, to move out of their neighborhood and take on a better job, but Ed is resolute and refuses. Eventually, she is able to coax him to what she perceives is a better neighborhood and, the hope is, to a more comfortable life.

Soon, though, it becomes clear that something is wrong with Ed. He is belligerent and obsessive and has inappropriate outbursts. When the family receives the catastrophic news that Ed is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, their world goes into a tailspin.

The author most assuredly does not sugarcoat Ed’s illness – the good, the bad, the ugly, the funny, the overwhelming sad, is all intertwined. At times, the family’s response to his illness can be frustrating to the reader, particularly Eileen and Ed’s son, Connell, who, wrapped up in his own teenage issues, comes across as distant and uncaring.

Not only is this a book about trying to achieve the American dream, it is also about the resiliency of the human spirit. Unflinchingly honest and poignant, the book borders on tedium in its length and scope, but the payoff is well worth it.