A lifetime condensed in a novel?

WearenotourselvesI recently read the ambitious debut novel ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ by Matthew Thomas. Ostensibly the story of a marriage and how it changes when the husband starts suffering from dementia, it is in fact nothing less than a portrayal of the American Dream after World War Two. So it’s the story of second-generation immigrants in the latter half of the twentieth century in the United States, but also a family story, seen largely through the eyes of Eileen Tumulty, who marries scientist Ed Leary. But it’s about the whole context as well: the need to believe in the perfect family and home, the birth of consumer society and economic prosperity, the wish to rise above one’s station. It’s also about mortality, frailty, parents and children, dreams and how we don’t quite make them work for us, about everything under the sun. So, while I admire the author’s ambition, this is perhaps the flaw of the novel: it tries to tell too much, but is nevertheless beautifully written and with some truly touching moments.

I’m not normally a fan of sweeping family sagas, but this one is so tightly bound to a single point of view (Eileen’s), that there is no sense here of too many characters insufficiently connected, some of which you couldn’t care less about. The second point of view, that of Connell their son, comes to the forefront only in the last quarter or so of the book. There is a lot of summarising and skipping of years, a lot of trivia and minutiae, which were fine until I realised that after reading pretty solidly for several days, I had only reached the 30% or so mark of the book. It is a long book, and could perhaps have benefitted from some editing –  it does drag on a bit. There are perhaps a few too many instances and examples, and they get more and more gruelling as the husband’s condition deteriorates. But there are also moments of such insight and beauty, such sharp observation, where the characters really come alive with all their pain and hopes and disappointments laid bare. It’s worth wading through all the rest for these moments (and they are by no means rare). It doesn’t surprise me to discover that the author spent ten years writing, rewriting, refining this novel, and it is remarkably mature for a debut novel.

PrivatelifeIt got me wondering, however, what other books are of similar epic proportion, and have the ambition of ‘telling the story of a nation or a generation via the story of an individual’. And what came to mind was ‘Private Life’ by Jane Smiley. Margaret Mayfield is practically an old maid at the age of 27 in the last decade of the 19th century, so she considers herself lucky to make the ‘catch’ of Captain Andrew Early, naval officer and astronomer, the most famous man in their small Missouri town. They marry and she follows him to his observatory on the naval base just outside San Francisco. But her life turns out to be one long disappointment.

Interestingly enough, this book is not just about the ‘private’ life: it refers consistently to external events – the great earthquake in San Francisco, the First World War, Pearl Harbour, internment of Japanese Americans in camps during the Second World War etc. It also talks about a scientist husband with very strong opinions and a lack of empathy. However, the resilience of the couple in ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ stems from love and respect (however different it may be from the ideal of romantic love), while in ‘Private Life’ it seems to be more about a sense of duty and having no other choices. Of course, it’s a different time period: Margaret could be Eileen’s grandmother. Divorce initiated by women was highly unusual in those days (and we have the cautionary tale of a member of their knitting circle who does get a divorce and ‘disappears from view’).

From archives.gov.on.ca
From archives.gov.on.ca

What struck me in both books is just how tedious the minutiae of daily life is to all but those living it. I don’t think I have a particularly short attention span, and sure enough there are moments of universality (perhaps the contrast is all the sharper because of the endless piling on of small details), but is it really necessary? Could we have some judicious editing, please? Strangely enough, I love reading diaries (Pepys, Evelyn, Virginia Woolf), but diaries are not novels. Any pattern or shape emerges accidentally in diaries, but I like my novels to have form and coherence. I don’t want them to depict the trivia of everyday life, but rise above that.




14 thoughts on “A lifetime condensed in a novel?”

  1. Interestingly I didn’t mind the minutiae in Thomas’ novel although I would usually be first to agree that long, baggy novels need an editor unafraid to wield a scalpel. I’ll have to go away and think about why that was so. At the other end of the scale Mary Costello’s Academy Street manages to encapsulate a life in under 200 pages of beautifully disciplined prose.

    1. To be honest, I think that Thomas succeeds much more than Smiley in this instance – perhaps because the descriptions of dementia and the additional perspective of the son gave more of a structure and poignancy.

  2. I’ve heard some great things about this novel, but 640 pages represents a significant investment in reading time. I really like what you say about the characters: their hopes and dreams; their heartaches and disappointments; the moments of insight and beauty. Your comments reminded me of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which clocks in at around 350 pages. It’s not quite the same as the Thomas, but there are some similarities between the two.

    1. Well, it’s a charming coincidence that you’ve just put up a review of Didion’s Run River today, which is also about a difficult marriage, a lifestyle, a period in American history, but in a much less ‘baggy’, reduced fashion. I haven’t read the Stegner book – but it’s interesting that it’s Jane Smiley who writes the introduction to his novel.

  3. Do you think books seem less edited now since ebooks and self publishing have become more popular? I have noticed this as well in many books. In this one specifically, . I started, loved it, then put it down and haven’t gone back for a while but plan to. As usual, you give many things to consider in a lovely way. Consider me a fan.

    1. I wonder if it’s self-publishing or generally the reduced role of the editor in many publishing houses… or just authors refusing to accept ‘interference’. But you’re right – there were many things I loved about the Thomas book, but I wished I could have loved it in its entirety.
      And thank you very much for your kind words!

  4. That, I think, is always the dilemma, Marina Sofia. How much of that daily detail should there be in a novel? A little of it helps make the characters real. Too much and it does get tedious. And about family sagas…sometimes they can be brilliantly done. But I think you do have to be careful to give the book a tight enough focus. I enjoy those big, historical novels (Edward Rutherfurd and James Michener, for instance) sometimes, but they’re not everyone’s thing.

    1. Perhaps the Michener/Rutherfurd ones work because they are about many generations from the same family, rather than just one or two. So, of necessity, they have to skip the dullest trivia of everyday (while including just enough detail for the atmosphere and to place it in time and space).

  5. I think for me it depends on whether the life that is being described is different enough to my own to hold my attention. For instance, one of the things I love about CJ Sansom’s books is the detail he packs in of his protagonist’s life – but then it’s a life set in Tudor England, so I’m finding something new on every page, even if he’s just describing a meal. A book set in my own time and culture would have to work much harder to keep me on side for over 600 pages…

  6. I struggled with Thomas’ novel, but I wonder if it’s because I was maybe rushing to finish it. It seemed like every chapter started ‘It was Christmas 1950…’ or ‘On Valentine’s Day 1951’ and, although the author carefully thought Eileen’s life, it’s not something I particularly enjoyed reading.

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