We Are Not Ourselves

A gorgeous torrent of words for 600+ pages carefully winding you through the life of Eileen Leary, husband Ed, and son Connell (named after Evan Connell from her friend Ruth’s copy of Mrs. Bridge left at the hospital, if that tips you off about the author’s influences). Eileen is a tough kid, caring for her parents at too early an age (her mom joining AA and then wondering on her deathbed if it had been worth it not to drink all those years), sucking it up and becoming a nurse’s administrator instead of a lawyer, a politician (this theme recurring through the work). She meets Ed on a setup for New Year’s Eve and she falls for the brainy lab assistant, marrying him and working hard to put him through graduate school and get him on a tenure track. She’s always dreaming of a better life, one where she doesn’t have to work so much, and yet she’s the constant jackhammer of progress in their lives. Ed starts to act strangely, silencing the world with headphones as he works through his stack of unlistened-to records, falling apart in the classroom when Connell visits (repeating himself), his condition worsens and weirdens until we find he’s got full blown Alzheimer’s in his early 50s. He managed to keep it together and hide it as long as he could, and then eventually he just collapses into the disease. Meanwhile, Eileen has uprooted them from their Jackson Heights apartment to a fixer-upper house in Westchester, not realizing his condition (keeping things familiar would have helped his memory). The son goes through various stages of athleticism, hoodlum-ism, and studiousness, eventually going to college as far away as possible so as not to have to deal with the reality of his father’s condition. Eileen is a tower of strength, caring for Ed at home as long as she could, eventually securing the services of Sergei to help care for Ed while she’s at work (romance eventually ensues). There’s a particularly heartbreaking Christmas scene after Ed’s in the nursing home, Connell thinks he’ll surprise his mom by bringing Ed to the party she’s throwing, instead he’s intercepted at the door by friend Ruth who is aghast that he’s about to do this to his mother. It’s a failure, Ed drooling in his wheelchair and destroying the party Eileen had so desperately needed. He eventually dies, Connell flying home to see him one last time but arriving too late and flirting with his airline seatmate. Most disturbing to me were the thoughts it unleashes about one’s own mortality– what happens if I reach that state? It’s a good book in that it engenders these thoughts, makes you empathize with the characters, and is well written. The only thing that sticks in my craw is the role Eileen plays in it, dutiful wife who is aware she is constantly throwing away her own dreams in order to create a life with Ed. I think if written by a woman, Eileen’s character might have more bite, a little more perspective and pain in tossing aside those dreams, instead of taking for granted that they are disposable.
Reco’d by Maggie