What makes a story engrossing? Is it a surprising plot? A new twist? Or is it about the characters? Maybe a little quirk in their personalities that we find amusing? Is it an ability to see a bit of ourselves in the pages? These are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself since reading "We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas.
This stunning first novel is very engrossing, but I’m not sure exactly why.
Truthfully, based on just the description of "We Are Not Ourselves" I wasn’t certain how I’d feel about the book, or if I even wanted to pick it up. It sounded emotionally difficult and sad, not exactly the best recipe for an evening’s entertainment. I love when I am proven wrong by an author, and this was one of those magical moments.
Ed Leery has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the course of this expansive novel, we watch his struggles and decline through the eyes of his small family. You see how it impacts his wife Eileen and their son Connell as he moves through his teenage and college years. As his father’s health deteriorates, Connell turns to bosses and teachers for advice and support instead of his dad. During college, he even avoids trips home to visit his father, finding it just too hard. Like Eileen, you may be disappointed with Connell and also completely understand. Every day in the Leery household is a challenge and Eileen, who also works full time as a nurse, won’t truly get a moment to rest until Ed’s battle is finally lost.
"We Are Not Ourselves" is a lesson in detailed character development, and one I wish other authors would take the time to study. These are not perfect people, but they are true. Thomas has the patience to not just get in their heads, but also to capture each and every little moment they experience during this difficult time in their lives. Most writers and editors would probably have skipped a few hundred of these pages, but not Thomas, and his characters are richer for it. It is a form of literary honesty and in today’s publishing world it is rare, and it is a gift.
"We Are Not Ourselves" is not surprising; we all know how a story like this is going to end. But we are drawn along, not for a desire to reach the conclusion but for the experience along the way. And Thomas makes this experience so very real that we feel every heartbreaking and fleeting day in its pages. These are not just Ed’s last moments with his family, but also his last moments with us.
So maybe the answer to my original question is something more elusive, something less explainable. Heart. It’s obvious that Thomas cares deeply for his characters in "We Are Not Ourselves" and he wants us to feel that way too. And maybe that is what a reader is feeling as he turns each page of this wonderful novel. A bit of the lingering affection of the author himself.
There are two new ways you can check out Scott's own writing. His novel "My Problem With Doors" was just released for the Kindle, and his book "A Jane Austen Daydream" is now an audiobook on Audible and iTunes. You can find out more information via his writing blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.