Perhaps the most poignant moment in “King Lear” occurs when Lear, on the cusp of losing his mind, cries out, “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; keep me in temper; I would not be mad!” Echoes of Lear’s terror resound through Matthew Thomas’s stunning first novel, “We Are Not Ourselves,” as one of the pivotal characters succumbs to the ravages of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“What are we going to do?” Ed Leary asks after hearing his diagnosis, at age 51.
“We are going to carry this with dignity and grace,” replies his wife, Eileen Leary.
But of course that’s impossible. “This is a disease where you never win,” a doctor tells Eileen. “It doesn’t just take down the sufferer. It takes down the spouse, the children, the friends.”
He’s only partially right. Because nothing can really take down Eileen, the hero of this sweeping, multigenerational novel. Eileen is a compelling character — intelligent, vulnerable, hard-working, compassionate, tough — and her story, as rendered with exquisite precision by Thomas, both exhilarates and breaks our hearts.
We see, through Eileen’s experience, that when memory is gone, precious little is left. Alzheimer’s creates a very particular kind of horror: The loss of family bonds, of a life’s hard work, of everything that defines a person. Thomas masterfully captures this affliction, sparing us no detail in rendering the emotional, physical and financial toll it takes on a family.
But to classify “We Are Not Ourselves” as a story about Alzheimer’s would not do it justice. The novel is a formidable tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, to the restorative and ultimately triumphant supremacy of love over life’s adversities.
We first meet Eileen at age 9, in 1951. The daughter of “Big Mike,” a charismatic Irishman who is the unofficial patriarch of Woodside, a working class neighborhood in Queens, she lives in her father’s shadow. “Men were always quieting down around her father,” Eileen notes as she accompanies him to an Irish pub after dancing lessons.
We witness Eileen’s growth to maturity, as she supports her alcoholic mother from the depths of that disease. We see her fall in love with Ed Leary, an eccentric neuroscientist, get pregnant, raise a son, work a demanding nursing career while trying to keep her dreams of moving up in the world alive. And we see her become increasingly bewildered as her husband begins acting more and more strangely.
Thomas documents Ed’s gradual deterioration with small, revealing details. We see the formerly sharp-witted, award-winning professor stop going to work in favor of sitting on the couch listening to opera because he says he has “had a cloudy head for a while and wants to get back to basics.” We see the son, visiting his father’s class, agitated as his father reads woodenly from a script, losing his place, repeating himself and refusing to answer questions. Was this the beloved teacher that everyone had raved about for years?
And then there’s the moment Eileen takes her husband to the doctor: “If nothing’s wrong with him, I’m going to divorce him. I can’t take it anymore,” she says. But as she waits for the doctor’s diagnosis, she realizes that was just bluster. “Now she saw that she would put up with anything in exchange for hearing that her husband had simply become an a------.”
The plot of “We Are Not Ourselves” follows the trajectory of a human life, and as in life, it meanders. But the writing is so extraordinary, the insightfulness about human emotion so sharp, that you are compelled to follow along. You are invested in Eileen’s tale. The joys of this book are the joys of any classic work of literature — for that is what this is destined to become — superbly rendered small moments that capture both an individual life and the universality of that person’s experience.
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” Lear cries in agony toward the end of the play that bears his name. It is a lament shared by all the characters in this novel as they struggle to reconcile their thoughts and deeds with their ideals and dreams.
LaPlante’s most recent novel is “Circle of Wives.”
WE ARE NOT OURSELVES
By Matthew Thomas
Simon & Schuster.
620 pp. $28