Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

From the back of the book: Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and our narrator, Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons. “I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact: that I was raised with a chimpanzee,” she tells us. “It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone. I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. But until Fern’s expulsion, I’d scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half, and I loved her as a sister.”

Rosemary was not yet six when Fern was removed. Over the years, she’s managed to block a lot of memories. She’s smart, vulnerable, innocent, and culpable. With some guile, she guides us through the darkness, penetrating secrets and unearthing memories, leading us deeper into the mystery she has dangled before us from the start. Stripping off the protective masks that have hidden truths too painful to acknowledge, in the end, “Rosemary” truly is for remembrance.


Rosemary, the 22 year old narrator, begins by telling us that it’s been ten years since she last saw her brother Lowell, and seventeen years since she last saw her sister Fern. The twist here (which I’m not sure can really be called a “twist” as it is referenced in both the book description and cover art) is that Rosemary’s twin Fern is actually a chimpanzee.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves started out with a unique, interesting concept, and I sped through the first half of the book exceptionally quickly, devouring every word. But then something strange happened—mid-way through the book, Rosemary takes some drugs, and the book does an excellent job depicting her disorienting trip. The problem was that after that point, it felt like Rosemary’s “voice” changed to me. Instead of the usual chatty and conversational tone that we had been introduced to in the first part of the book, I’d find myself wondering  when I accidentally clicked over to an expose about animal testing and cosmetics. Or a textbook about psychologists. Certainly, these things were relevant to the story, and it appeared that the author had done extensive research into these areas, but it started to feel more like an op-ed piece in the newspaper than a novel. I felt that in the second half of the book, Rosemary’s voice was lost a bit (I feel like I must add that I didn’t dislike the message about animal testing and cruelty that this novel was trying to present—it just wasn’t integrated in a way that felt cohesive and consistent with Rosemary’s character, to me).

I’ve read Karen Joy Fowler’s other work (such as The Jane Austen Book Club), and I think that she’s an incredibly talented author. That said, I enjoyed this novel less than I’ve enjoyed others that she has written, simply because Rosemary’s character just didn’t feel genuine to me all the way through. That said, this book has received high reviews across the board, so it may just be me--if the concept interests you, I would certainly recommend giving it a try.


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