Elizabeth Schieber

“We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas

“We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas

I’ve been thinking for a while about how to talk about Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves. Right off the bat, it reminded me of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin or Someone by Alice McDermott.

To an extent.

If you read either of those slight, episodic books about young Irish immigrants in NYC and thought “Oh, I really loved that, I wish I knew her entire story,” then We Are Not Ourselves is something that will completely appeal to you.

We meet Eileen Tumulty as a young girl living in an apartment with her problematic/alcoholic parents and follow her well into middle age. The best part of the story, and the meat of it, concerns Eileen’s husband’s descent into illness, which was SO well done. I could picture Eileen perfectly, down to every detail so that even now – weeks after reading it – I can close my eyes and see her right down to her shoes. At times towards the middle/end of the novel, I found myself “remembering” her childhood; it seemed so long ago that I was recalling it as memory, not as something I’d just read. As weird as that is to try to describe, I think it means that by the end of the (long) novel, Eileen was someone I knew really, really well.

Sell this wonderful debut novel to anyone who likes a great family saga and is not afraid of tackling a thick book.

We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel by Matthew Thomas (Simon & Schuster |ISBN 9781476756660 |August 19, 2014)


“The Hundred-Year House” by Rebecca Makkai

Does this cover make you think of children’s books? Or cutesy lit? What a misrepresentation!

I really loved, loved this novel. If I had to make comparisons, I’d say it’s a little bit like a less verbose, Canadian version of Kate Morton, with a touch of DuMaurier’s Rebecca and a little bit of Sarah Waters in the mix. I might also say that it’s structured like a Russian nesting doll, inviting readers to work from the present, outer shell in to the very heart of things.

We start in 1999, in a huge mansion in Canada that served for many years as an artist’s retreat but has, at some point, been returned to the family as a private residence. Zee has moved home with her husband, Doug, and taken up residence in the coach house, just off of the main building (where her mother, Grace, lives). Right off the bat, it’s clear that the house itself is the main character — there are all sorts of family secrets, perhaps even ghosts, hiding in its walls. Next, we work backwards in time to see Grace, Zee’s mother, as a newlywed in the home. This section shines. Finally, we go back even further to the crazy set of artists who lived and loved in the house during its years as an artist’s retreat. (This section was my least favorite, but answered some essential questions.)

I enjoyed the multigenerational story tremendously and am still puzzling out some of the book’s revelations.

“Euphoria” by Lily King

euphoria 9780802122551_b3d5cI picked up Lily King’s Euphoria by chance and immediately fell deep into the heart of Papua New Guinea. This is going to be a great, great hand-sell for the summer. Loosely based on the adventures of Margaret Mead, Euphoria is the brilliant story of Nell and Fen, husband and wife anthropologists who venture into the depths of Papua New Guinea to discover unknown tribes circa 1932. Somewhere along the way, they link up with fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson–a lonely Brit who has been studying a particular river tribe for many years. There is a love triangle (of course! but so good!) and a lot of interaction with the cultures of the tribes (excellent!). I loved Nell, so deeply, for asking questions of the natives that I would’ve liked to have asked. I hated Fen, so deeply, for all of the things he neglected to say. And Andrew Bankson? A brilliant narrator I really found myself pulling for. Perfect for any reader, man or woman, who loved The Mosquito Coast, Poisonwood Bible, Bel Canto or State of Wonder (and especially perfect for people who didn’t love State of Wonder as much as they would have liked).

Euphoria by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press | 9780802122551 | June 3, 2014) 

“One Night in Winter” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

What happens when you cross Donna Tartt’s The Secret History with one of the scariest times in Russian history? You end up with Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter.

Set in Moscow shortly after Russia’s defeat of Hitler, two students are found shot dead during a celebratory parade. Investigations reveal that the children are not just any children, but those of Russia’s most influential and powerful political elite. They are also revealed to be members of a secret society dedicated to the works of Pushkin, or so it seems. One by one, students are arrested and held prisoner, questioned until they begin turn on each other and even their parents. Small, seemingly minor slips of the tongue made by children under duress have major consequences for some of the people closest to Stalin. Love affairs are uncovered, sacrifices are made, secrets revealed. Based in truth, this novel will keep you biting your nails until the very end.

One Night in Winter: A Novel by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Harper, 9780062291882, May 6, 2014)

“The Painter” by Peter Heller

I completely ravaged this novel, loved every minute of it and now consider myself a Heller groupie. The story is about a guy named Jim. He is a normal guy, a rough-around-the-edges guy, who lives in Taos with strong roots in Santa Fe. He also happens to be a fairly successful artist – successful enough that he can make a living by it. That would be layer one. Layer two involves a lot of darkness; three years of sobriety following a stint in jail, the death of a teenage daughter, uncontrollable anger. Even with some of the dark parts, Jim is someone I loved from the very first. I loved him even more when he got into a fight with a large, chaw-chewing hunter named Dell who was beating a small horse. I didn’t even mind when, a few nights later, Jim killed the guy.

What follows is the best story, the story of dealing with grief and trying to come to terms with what kind of a man you are (he always thought he was a good man, but he has done some bad things), but also the story of how all of these issues manifest in his painting. Very reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, but skewed wonderfully towards the art world.

The Painter by Peter Heller (Knopf, 9780385352093, May 6, 2014)