They met at university in Santa Cruz, CA, in the 1990s. Following the adventures and misadventures of Anna Fury, Kate Smirnoff, and George Leoni through the more than twenty years following their beginnings was a little bit like a rollercoaster ride, and the author’s narrative style adds to this sensation. The journey jogs from Santa Cruz, to St. Louis, to Boston…and to many points in between.

How to Start a Fire veers back and forth in time and place, almost raucously, resembling the lives they led. Sometimes it was challenging to remember what had happened in previous visits to each time period, as the story would pick up again a decade or two later, and not in any sequential way.

But then I lost myself in trying to learn all I could about each of these fascinating characters, watching with horror sometimes, as each seemed to be her own worst enemy.

Anna’s brilliance in her premed years and in her brief time as a doctor was overshadowed by her addictions. In some ways, her blackouts seemed to be a way to distance herself from her own behavior. What was she trying to escape?

Kate’s inertia, compounded by the way she ran away from her problems emotionally, was a precursor for a different kind of running away. What hid beneath Kate’s unique quest through the heartlands?

George was fascinating in her physical impressiveness and her outdoorsy way…and unfortunate in her choices of men. How did the events in her life lead to these choices?

An array of assorted secondary characters fill in as backdrop to the primary ones…and add depth to them. Due to the jumping around between time periods, we very slowly grow to see the whole picture. Throughout, we witness how friendships are tested, and we also see that what remains is often enough to sustain them. Themes of fire, how it is created, the damage it can do, and the metaphorical essence of it remind us of how nothing is ever just one thing or with just one meaning, and in its various forms, it can still provide warmth and hope. A sometimes frustrating tale, due to the leaps and jumps, I still could not stop reading it. 4 stars.


91hu3hzm1PLThis epic saga of an Irish Catholic family commences in Queens in 1941, with Eileen Tumulty, the MC, whose story begins when she is about nine years of age. Through her eyes, we see the effect her father has on her, with his stories, his drinking, and his larger-than-life essence.

Her remote mother, also a heavy drinker, stops drinking at one point, but life does not seem better for her.

Even at this early age, we see Eileen’s yearning for a rich tapestry of love, family, and beautiful settings. She has her eye on bigger and better things.

So when she meets Ed Leary in her college years, when she is studying nursing, there is a pull. Something about him that feels like home.

But as they begin their journey, and even after their son is born, we see the chasms growing between them, as what they each want seems to differ more and more with time.

Ed’s quirks seem more and more irritating to Eileen, as she realizes, finally, how much they have grown apart. And perhaps they never wanted the same things and she only saw what she wanted to see. Eileen’s longing for what she envisions for them—the house, the neighborhood, and the life—drives her to take actions.

But will the changes they make contribute to other, more drastic upheavals in their lives? What lies beneath Ed’s behavior, and what will Eileen have to do to bring about the serenity she craves?

The tragedies, sadness, and poignant moments that linger over the rest of We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel kept me going, wondering and even hoping that there would be some miraculous resolution to the changes in their lives. What was great to see was Eileen’s strength, in the face of life’s unexpected reversals. Ed’s traits that seemed annoying earlier in the story are now seen for what they were, a harbinger of what was to come.

Connell, the son, was difficult to pin down, for me. In his youth, he seemed on the brink of choices that could derail his life, but then, almost magically, he seemed to turn things around. What I did not like about him was his inability to see things from his parents’ perspective, and his obliviousness to any needs but his own. But time itself corrects this, and in the end, we see a new and improved version of him, ready to confront his legacy and carve out his own.

A compelling story that touches on issues with which families struggle, even without the tragedies. How marriages are often entered into without thought to how the individuals will manage when the early love no longer sustains them. And then we see that the commitment and the early bonds step in to spotlight the deeper and lasting foundation. Beautiful prose that created wonderful images of a family, a life, and the legacies left behind. 5.0 stars.