Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for We Are Not Ourselves includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Matthew Thomas. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Epic in scope, heroic in character, and masterful in prose, We Are Not Ourselves is a multigenerational portrait of the Irish American Leary family.
Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on whether guests are over and how much alcohol has been consumed.
When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she’s found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn’t aspire to the same, ever bigger stakes in the American Dream. Although she encourages him to want more, as the years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. An inescapable darkness enters their lives, and Eileen and Ed and their son Connell try desperately to hold together a semblance of the reality they have known and to preserve, against long odds, an idea they have cherished of the future.
Through the Leary family, novelist Matthew Thomas charts the story of the American Century. At once expansive and exquisitely detailed, We Are Not Ourselves is a riveting and affecting work of art––one that reminds us that life is more than a tally of victories and defeats, that we live to love and be loved, and that we should tell one another so before the moment slips away.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Thomas begins his novel with two epigraphs, one from Stanley Kunitz and one from King Lear. Did the epigraphs inform your reading of the novel? How did they relate to each of the members of the Leary family? Why do you think Thomas chose to use the phrase We Are Not Ourselves, taken from the King Lear epigraph, as the title of his novel?
2. When Eileen is growing up, she’s aware that “men were always quieting down around her father” (pp. 3–4), whom “everybody called…Big Mike” (p. 6). Describe Big Mike. Why does he command so much respect from the outside world? Does this influence Eileen’s behavior? In what ways? How does Big Mike’s legend compare with the reality of what he is like when he is at home with Eileen and her mother?
3. Even after Eileen buys the apartment building from the Orlando family, she’s obsessed with the idea of owning her own house. Why is this so important for Eileen?
4. When Eileen enters nursing school “she knew that even if nursing wasn’t the field she’d have chosen, she’d been training for it without meaning to from an early age” (p. 38). Describe Eileen’s childhood. How have Eileen’s experiences with her mother helped prepare her for the job? Occasionally Eileen feels the instructors are “treating her with something like professional courtesy” (p. 38), and it makes her think of the way men in the neighborhood treat her father. Why? And why does this make her uneasy?
5. When Ed turns down an offer to be the chairman of his department, he tells Eileen, “It’s all about having the right ambition” (p. 85). What does Ed think the “right” ambitions are? Why is Eileen so upset that he has turned down the job? How does his ambition conflict with Eileen’s?
6. After Ed has lost his temper and “flipped out” on Connell, Eileen tells him that “it had better not [happen again]. I don’t give a damn what your father did to you. That boy’s not him” (p. 186). Why do you think Ed is so reticent to talk about his relationship with his own father? Does Ed’s relationship with his father inform his parenting style with Connell? If so, in what ways?
7. On moving day, when Eileen arrives at her new house, “Her first thought as she took in the house through the window as that it didn’t look the way she’d remembered it” (p. 278). Contrast Eileen’s memory of her new house with the reality of what it looks like. What accounts for the change in the way that Eileen views the house? Why is she so baffled when her movers ask her where they should place her belongings within it?
8. Connell attends one of Ed’s classes in order to complete a school assignment. Describe Connell’s experience in the classroom. Although Connell is unnerved by his time in Ed’s classroom, he keeps his word to Ed and decides not to tell his mother how strange it had been. Why do you think Connell chooses to keep this information to himself? Do you agree with his decision to do so? When Ed apologizes to Connell, Connell tells him, “It’s all right . . . I already know what kind of teacher you are. You teach me every day” (p. 162). How does Ed teach his son?
9. Who is Bethany? Do you think her friendship with Eileen is healthy? Why or why not? Why does Eileen agree to accompany Bethany to the faith healer? Compare and contrast Eileen’s experiences with Vywamus with her experience going to a therapist. Why does Eileen think that going to the faith healer is “better than therapy” (p. 444). Do you think going to the faith healer has helped Eileen? How?
10. Ed is reluctant to attend a party with Eileen at the home of one of her colleagues and tells her, “They’ll never know the real me” (p. 393). What does he mean? Were you surprised by Ed’s diagnosis? Were there any instances of foreshadowing in the novel that led you to anticipate what Ed’s illness was? What were they? Who do you think is “the real” Ed?
11. When Connell tells his friend Farshid that he and his family will be moving and expresses reticence about it, Farshid tells him, “You just need to reinvent yourself” (p. 240). Do you agree with Connell that “I have to invent myself before I can reinvent myself”? (p. 240). Why does Connell tell his mother that he wants to move even though he’s ambivalent about the prospect? What does moving into a new house mean to each member of the Leary family?
12. When it comes to dating, Eileen would “rather be alone than end up with a man who was afraid” (p. 51). What traits is Eileen looking for in a partner? How does Ed measure up to Eileen’s ideal partner? Were you surprised that she ends up marrying him? Eileen sees them as “coconspirators in a mission of normalcy” (p. 124). What does she mean? Describe their relationship. How does it evolve?
13. After Ed gets sick, Connell avoids going back home. Why is he so afraid of going home? Connell tells Eileen that caring for Ed is “too hard for me. It’s too much” and that “I’m not you. . . . That’s the problem right there” (p. 466). How does Eileen react? Is she justified? Compare and contrast the way that both Eileen and Connell deal with their sick parents. In what ways, if any, are they alike?
14. After Ed’s diagnosis, Eileen takes “a third path, the pragmatic one. It hadn’t happened for a reason, by they would find something to glean from it anyway” (p. 382). What does Eileen’s reaction tell us about her character? Describe your first impression of Eileen. Did you like her initially? Did your impression of Eileen change as you read on? In what ways and why?
15. Eileen’s mother tells her, “Don’t ever love anyone. All you’ll do is break your own heart” (p. 12). Why does she offer this advice to Eileen? In what ways has Eileen’s mother’s heart been broken? Do any of the other characters in We Are Not Ourselves suffer heartbreaks? What has caused those instances of suffering?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Baseball is important in the Leary household. Ed and Connell relate to each other through the sport. When Eileen goes to a game with Ed and Connell, she realizes that “she did some of her best thinking at ball games, or while Ed was listening to them on the radio” (p. 172). Watch a baseball game with your book club. Discuss why Eileen might find watching games calming. Did the experience have the same effect on you?
2. When Eileen is a young girl, her father takes her to visit friends in Jackson Heights and she feels an amazing sense of peace because “the people who lived in this building had figured out something important about life, and she’d stumbled upon their secret. There were places, she now saw, that contained more happiness than ordinary places did” (pp. 15–16). What is it about the building that feels exceptionally special to Eileen? Are there any places like that in your life? What makes them so important to you? Share your thoughts with your book club.
3. When Matthew Thomas sold We Are Not Ourselves for publication, it was major industry news. Read more about it here http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2013/04/high-school-english-teacher-who-sold-his-debut-novel-1-million/64342/ and here http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/high-school-teacher-lands-deal-for-debut-novel_b68806
4. Go on a virtual walking tour of Queens, New York, by following this link: http://www.thirteen.org/queens/ to learn more about the neighborhoods where Eileen grows up and where she raises Connell. Eileen knows “it was possible to see the changes as part of what made the city great…but only if you weren’t the one being displaced” (p. 128). Talk about how Eileen reacts to the changes in Jackson Heights with your book club. Were you surprised? Explain your answer.
A Conversation with Matthew Thomas
Congratulations on publishing your debut, We Are Not Ourselves. What has the experience of having your book published been like? Did you find anything surprising? If so, what?
I’m thrilled to have my book published and grateful that it found a home at Simon & Schuster, with the extraordinary Marysue Rucci as its editor.
What has surprised me is just how many people play a vital role in getting a book into the hands of readers. Once its writer is done with it, a book owes it eventual existence on shelves to a remarkable team effort by untold talented people—editors, copyeditors, jacket designers, production editors, sales reps, book reps, publicists, even publishers themselves—who make crucial, often unsung contributions.
You’ve said it took you more than a decade to write We Are Not Ourselves. What made you keep writing? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I kept going because I didn’t want to regret not finishing it. I’d invested a great deal of time, energy, and spirit in it and passed up many other opportunities while working on it. I think of that famous line of Macbeth’s: “I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” I would say “I had to finish it,” but I’m uncomfortable invoking the idea of a ferocious creative mandate that needed to be fulfilled, because I think that’s too hifalutin a notion to describe an activity, novel writing, that’s more often like long-haul trucking than some ineffable mystical experience. It’s closest to the truth to say that not finishing it would have dealt my psyche a blow whose imagined pain was worse than the considerable frustration of facing my limitations every day.
To aspiring writers, I would say: Don’t give up. It’s never too late. You’re never too old. The success of others is proof of the possibility of your own success. There’s enough opportunity to go around. When you’ve taken your book as far as you can take it on your own, and at least one trusted person has read it and provided feedback that has allowed you to see its flaws clearly and attend to them faithfully, and you know it’s ready, really know it’s ready, it will find a home. Despite the doomsday scenarios we hear about the death of reading in general, there will still be people looking to publish good books whenever you’re done with yours. Having a day job helps take the pressure off your earning a living as a writer while you’re working on your book. Take as long as you need. Go alone down the stormy peninsula of your thoughts and trust that when you return there will be someone at the other end of your travels and you won’t regret the journey, however discouraging or frightening it might be at any given moment.
Write by hand, if you can. It’s the easiest way to eliminate distractions, and it provides tremendous forward momentum, because it’s harder to stop and edit when you’re writing by hand, and it’s especially difficult to get caught up in trying to perfect every sentence as you write it. Writing a first draft on a computer often yields the spectral experience of watching your sentences disappear off the screen shortly after you write them, because they’re seldom just right the first time and if you give yourself any chance to get rid of them, you will do so. It’s harder to delete bad sentences when you handwrite; you really have to cross them out a lot, and a vestige of them remains behind despite your best efforts. And that’s good. Because when you go back and look later, with a kinder eye than you possess in the white heat of composition, at the first sparks the unconscious mind threw off, you often find something in them worth preserving.
Chad Harbach calls your protagonist Eileen Leary “a real addition to our literature,” praising her as a “mother, wife, daughters, lover, nurse, caretaker, whiskey drinker, upwardly mobile dreamer, retrenched protector of values.” She’s so vividly rendered that she feels familiar. How did you come up with her character? Is she based on anyone in your life? If so, can you tell us a little about them?
Eileen was rooted originally in my mother, who is a more dynamic and complex person than I could ever have hoped to capture on the page. Eventually I found creative freedom in letting Eileen be who she wanted to be. In general, the novel came fully to life when I allowed my characters to be characters and abandoned any attempt to mimetically reproduce the fathomless humanity of any individual person.
Beyond my mother in specific, I was also trying to evoke the spirit of some of the women I’d admired when I was growing up: strong, career-minded women at the forefront of the next wave of feminism making historic inroads into a male-dominated professional hierarchy.
Eileen’s story manages both to be highly personal and universal. Publishers Weekly praises it in a starred review, saying Eileen’s “life, observed over a span of six decades, comes close to a definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century.” Did you do any research about American social history while you were writing We Are Not Ourselves?
Writing about New York is almost by definition writing about American social history, because New York is freighted with so much significance in the American imagination and perhaps the human imagination in general. The city bears the weight of nearly limitless thematic importance as a symbol of capitalism, immigrant opportunity, decadence, urban decay and renewal, race and class relations, and inequities in the distribution of resources. I wanted to render New York as accurately as I could on the page, so I ended up doing a good deal of research into the city’s history, the history of Queens in particular. I researched immigration patterns, to see which neighborhoods different ethnic groups settled in, because I wanted to place my characters correctly on the map. I researched the manufacturing sector in New York, to see what was sold and where, because manufacturing jobs—paints and pigments, watches, the garment and meatpacking districts, the millinery industry—were the incubator of the middle class in the area, and the loss of those jobs was the loss of that incubator. One thinks immediately of Detroit when one thinks of the collapse of manufacturing, but the boost given Ed by the manufacturing sector was once fairly typical in New York, and its loss had an impact on social mobility.
I consulted box scores, recaps, and newspaper articles to learn as much as I could about the specific New York Mets games that appear in the novel. This was more than a diversion for me. I see baseball as being woven inextricably into American social history. For years, baseball was a point of entry into American culture for immigrants who found they could share a language with established Americans in the joys and tribulations of fandom. And it was a primer for many males in the performance of the rituals of masculinity, beginning with stickball or Little League or the catch with Dad, and continuing, the idea went, into one’s relationship with one’s own child. Baseball fandom became a signifier of one’s willingness to assume certain ratified, prescribed male roles. And affections for teams were tribal, and epic in scope. If a girl’s father was a Yankees fan, then she was a Yankees fan. That bone-deep identification is fertile territory for fiction, because it activates the most basic impulse of storytelling. This is who I am—a Yankees fan.
The kind of research I found most compelling (aside from the fun of figuring out which styles of watches, cars, and clothing were popular at different junctures) was the sort not readily available in documentary texts, the sort James Joyce wrote back to Dublin about when he was composing from abroad. What’s the name of that store on the corner? How far is it from such and such a church to such and such a house? The facts on the ground. The Internet is an extraordinary resource for this kind of thing. Google Earth is a miracle for fiction writers. But nothing is as fruitful as naked-eye observing. So I went to sites and looked around. I got a feel for places whenever I could.
Aside from my research into New York, I researched nursing practices, the state of medical insurance practices and Medicaid and Medicare law in the last couple of decades, the history of the development of Alzheimer’s drugs, intake procedures for nursing homes, and the effects of Alzheimer’s on the bodies of sufferers, including the rates of deterioration and so forth. But I never wanted to write a case study. I sought to write a novel first, and a novel that had to do with Alzheimer’s, second.
Probably the most productive research I did was simply interviewing friends and family members. Eyewitness accounts might lack the rigor of historical sources, but they preserve an unusual amount of the rich human texture of the past.
It’s apparent that Ed loves teaching and that, until his illness manifests itself, he’s widely respected by both his students and colleagues. How did your own experiences in the classroom inform Ed’s character?
Teaching at a Jesuit school, where an ethic of service is inculcated not just in the students but in the faculty and staff, gave me insight into how a teacher like Ed, who is so dedicated to his students, might think. Ed derives genuine spiritual sustenance from his work, and I’m not sure I could have understood that if I hadn’t been a teacher myself. Teaching is a job in which something critical—the molding of the minds of others—is always at stake in the routine performance of the task. In its purest form teaching is a vocation, and as is true with the performance of any vocation, you get back from it more than you put into it, even when you put a lot into it and even when it’s not always “fun.” It’s a privilege to teach. It’s a privilege to spend all day helping people with their writing and their thought processes. And it’s a privilege to discuss books with developing minds. I remember thinking, early in my career, when we were digging into “Ozymandius,” What an extraordinary thing this is, to be standing here talking about this poem with these young people at one in the afternoon. I never forgot that feeling, even when exhaustion made the profession a challenge. Certainly, grading papers late into the night, and experiencing the foggy mind that results from sleep deprivation, enabled me to write my way into the section where Ed is having a hard time getting his lab reports graded.
When We Are Not Ourselves was first acquired for publication, you told Page Six, “I’m humbled. . . . Working on it for more than a decade, I faced a lot of self-doubt and threw out hundreds of pages.” Clearly, your writing process involved a lot of self-editing. Can you tell us more about it? Did you know how the novel would end when you began writing?
There was an enormous amount of self-editing, particularly in the final two years of composition. Self-editing, in fact, was part of what made the book take longer than I would have liked. When I began the book, I was writing by hand, but I switched to the computer about halfway through and found that I was editing everything as I wrote it and not getting enough forward momentum. It was only when I switched back to hand-writing that I began to make a real dent in the story.
I had an idea of how it would end, and I progressed toward that ending, though the textures of the idea changed in the course of my writing the scenes leading up to it. Part of the pleasure of writing a novel is watching your initial conceptions evolve as the characters guide you in different directions than you’d imagined going in.
Charles Bock calls We Are Not Ourselves “a true epic in the best sense of the word.” Were there great American epics that inspired you while you were writing? What were they?
Invisible Man. The Great Gatsby isn’t epic in size, but it’s epic in scope, and the dream Gatsby pursues is the quest of an epic hero. Moby Dick. Light in August. Blood Meridian. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Adventures of Augie March. The Grapes of Wrath. An American Tragedy. Ironweed. Lolita. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge together form an epic of ordinary lives. Charming Billy. The Rabbit Angstrom books. The first two of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe books, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, had a big influence on me. The Moviegoer. To Kill a Mockingbird. Beloved.
Each of Ed’s friends and family members reacts differently to his illness, and you present each of their reactions with great empathy. How were you able to do so?
I tried to take cues from the characters themselves in presenting a range of possible reactions that might capture the manifold ways people handle bad news. Within scenes I saw that each character would respond in his or her own way, according to the logic of how I drew them, and I tried to let them have autonomy to an extent. I think presenting them empathetically was made easier because I wasn’t writing a book that was trying to skewer anyone. I was trying to capture some of the truth of the lived experience of a people in a particular place and time—a tribe, a dominant culture, a subculture, whatever you choose to call it—as best as I understood them. Basically I tried to love all my characters with a full heart without turning a blind eye to their flaws, prejudices, or failings. The more I let go the reins of how they would be perceived or judged, the more human they became and, I hope, the more lovable, despite their sometimes unsettling idiosyncrasies and predilections.
What do you hope readers will take away from Eileen’s story?
I hope readers will find solace in reading about another person going through what Eileen goes through and coming out the other side. I hope the book inspires people to feel hope in the face of despair and believe it’s possible to preserve dignity amid experiences that profoundly reduce one’s power and dignity. I hope it leads them to conclude that we’re always capable of learning something, even the most intransigent among us and even late in life; that, while people might never really change, they can evolve into more loving versions of the selves they already are. I hope it might make some readers who live lives outside the margins of what the media considers “important” feel recognized and perhaps less alone. And I hope it inspires people to value the time they have, and their relationships, and maybe give the people who matter to them a hug.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I’m writing a novel about a different kind of family from the one in my first book. It, too, is rooted in the lives of its characters. I don’t intend to spend ten years writing it, that’s for sure. But who knows? We can control only so much in life.