The Leary family—Eileen, a nurse; her professor husband, Ed; and their ordinary son, Connell—are like most families. Their upward trajectory in economic status results in a move to the New York City suburbs from their working class Brooklyn. Things continue pretty much as expected until the arrival of a debilitating illness: Ed develops early onset Alzheimer’s disease, which they face with perseverance and dignity.
Matthew Thomas’ debut novel We Are Not Ourselves examines the lives of the quiet, heroic Leary family. Over a decade, the family ages, Ed’s illness worsens and Connell goes away for college. Thomas’ economy of words distills Elaine’s experience to its essence, as she copes with the daily, hourly and by-the-minute demands of Ed’s debilitation.
Connell comes home over the summers and for holidays, but when he is called home mid-term to help his mother he doesn’t think twice. His capricious young-adulthood, however, prevents him from being successful in the complex and selfless caregiving that is necessary. He returns to college, but guilt and conflicting responsibilities take a big toll on his psyche.
Matthew Thomas could easily have turned We are Not Ourselves into an issues novel, proselytizing on all kinds of human, moral and institutional failings. Instead, he has told an empathetic family-in-crisis story that emotionally resonates without sentimentality, and profoundly connects readers to the Leary family as if they were our own.