This is a very accomplished book that reminded me of Death of A Salesman in its subject matter, tone, universalism, and perceptive look at the American middle class in the changing world of the latter half of the 20th century.
For six decades, we follow the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her Irish-American family. The saga begins in Queens, New York, but as the neighborhood becomes increasingly global in nature, it feels threatening and less prestigious to Eileen. She aspires to move with her husband Ed and son Connell to the more affluent neighborhood of Bronxville, “surrounded by people who looked like her family.”
Like Willy Loman, Eileen is fixated on external markers of success, with a warped understanding of internal value. In fact, a major theme of the book is about how we judge ourselves and judge others – ranging from guilt and self-castigation over unexpressed thoughts to an assessment of worth founded on what sort of car we drive or clothes we wear or even the way we smell.
Ed, eccentric and nerdy, has no interest in accumulating wealth; rather, he is dedicated to continuing his research on rats in a second-rate college. Moreover, he has the quixotic idea (as Eileen would identify it) that what counted in life was not “victories and defeats” but “to love and be loved.”
In spite of Ed’s recalcitrance, Eileen doesn’t give up,and keeps pushing herself, Ed, and Connell, even if she has to scale back her aspirations. When Ed is stricken by early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, Eileen transfers her relentless dedication to the care and preservation of her husband, and to a fierce determination that Connell succeed in the way she never could.
It is up to Connell then, as the story draws to a close, to decide whether he will pursue the dreams of his mother or honor the lessons from his father. And always, hanging over him, is the frightening specter of genetic possibilities; early-onset Alzheimer’s disease runs in families, and is incurable.
Discussion: The theme of the title is played out in several ways in this story. Most obviously, with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, Ed Leary becomes someone else. Like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (a story Ed’s son Connell teaches to his students), Ed’s thought processes gradually get truncated and more bizarre, and he becomes increasingly burdensome to his family. But Ed’s family never stops loving him, even as he becomes less and less like himself. In fact, both Eileen and Connell insist on thinking of Ed as he used to be, rather than the shell of himself he has become.
But there are other, less obvious, manifestations of not being “ourselves,” from the adoption of social conventions, to the facades put on for social interactions, and even to the “Potemkin Village” of a house that Eileen finally buys – beautiful on the outside, but falling apart in its bones.
Evaluation: This is a moving – often heart-breaking, and well-crafted story with a scope and thematic depth that make it seem like the kind of book taught in schools, or at least, that should be taught in schools. It goes without saying that this would make an excellent choice for book clubs. Highly recommended.
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2014