It’s not that the book was bad. It’s that the book was just good.
This 600-page multi-generational story starts strong as the reader begins to walk with Eileen Tumulty. And why not? When one is young, faces challenges, and still retains a sense of familial place there is far to go and much to become.
After Eileen marries, however, she stops becoming and just starts acquiring. Readers get blips and snippets of her life with Ed and their son Connell – sometimes through her eyes and occasionally through Ed’s or Connell’s eyes. Most of what we see in Eileen does not endear us to her – she is selfishly ambitious, lacking any variation of empathy, and blind to just about every other dynamic around her.
Following Eileen was at times like following an uninteresting stranger. Her head is there – when I read her thoughts I connected with her disappointments and her strategizing and her rationalization. When I read her actions I wondered how obtuse one human character could be. Her heart is not there.
Heart need not be sentimentalized or wishy-washy. Heart can be stubborn and strong and fierce and proud. Heart is what motivates us and drives us. This seems confused in Eileen – her fortitude and pride are assets but they are wooden in execution. Likewise, her love and concern for her family seem strong only inasmuch as they bring her benefit and perceived elevation in society.
Further, with the exception of Eileen, Ed (her husband), and Connell (her son), all the other people in the book served as props. They were dropped in when necessary and nothing was expanded beyond their guest appearances. Even Eileen’s parents, who had been convincingly developed in the beginning, were dropped in the ground with little ceremony and rarely mentioned thereafter. Ed’s mother died apparently so we could see how he was doing with his own illness in the context of a highly emotional event. Careers, jobs, friends, events, and experiences were dropped and mentioned in an orderly sequence and with strong narrative ability but the reason for their inclusion smacked too much of functionality.
The one time that it seemed that the real Eileen emerged – the one who had been alluded to throughout but never identified completely – was at the end of the book when Connell admits to not finishing college and she responds with a sort of “ah ha!” moment. In that small scene, everything about her relationship with her son and with who she was as a mother and an adult flashed to the surface.
Where Thomas really shines and compels as an author is in the identification and description of pertinent details of daily life and rhythm. And these become particularly important as the effects of Alzheimer’s works through the family. Thomas’s torturous unveiling of Alzheimer’s is masterful and careful. In this, the latter part of the book, as well as during his introductions of the alcoholic Tumulty family in the beginning, Thomas successfully creates harrowing realities without being gratuitous.
There are about 200-pages too many in this book. After Eileen was well ensconced in her married life I took a few days off of reading the book because I just didn’t care what happened. I finally picked it up again to push through. The writing is strong and clean. I was intrigued to see the Alzheimer’s develop (as one of my current characters is approaching such a season). Mostly, there was such hype surrounding the book’s release that I wanted to see if the end brought it all out.
In short, I don’t agree with the significant hype and folderol that accompanied this debut, but it is good writing. The themes and scope and ideas are engaging. But everything all together is “just good.” Maybe just too much.
The reviews on Amazon fill the range of 1 to 5 stars and for good reason. You could love it or hate it or just feel “eh” about it. This perhaps is ideally as it should be. No firm consensus: You have to read it yourself to decide. I would recommend checking it out at the library first before buying it.