Rosemary's young, just at college, and she's decided not to tell anyone a thing about her family. So we're not going to tell you too much either: you'll have to find out for yourselves what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other. Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life... There's something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. So now she's telling her story; a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice... It's funny, clever, intimate, honest, analytical and swirling with ideas that will come back to bite you. We hope you enjoy it, and if, when you're telling a friend about it, you do decide to spill the beans about Fern, don't feel bad. It's pretty hard to resist.
As the novel opens, we are introduced to the Cooke family of Indiana: Dad is a psychology professor at Indiana University and his graduate students spend a lot of time at the house where he is running some psychology experiments. Mom is a stay at home Mom and the children are Lowell, Rosemary and Fern. Rosemary is the narrator of the story and decides that she will start her telling in the middle, when she is a student at UC Davis.
So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996. By then, we’d long since dwindled to the family that old home movie foreshadowed---me, my mother, and, unseen but evident behind the camera, my father. In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known. By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly thought about either one.” (Page 5)
The disappearance of her siblings provides the mechanism to delve into, in a roundabout way, the treatment of animals in the production of consumer items and the role played by the Animal Liberation Front in disrupting (violently, at times) the abuse of animals in this way. But even more than that, this is a story about a family that has experienced a traumatic event (twice) and must come to terms with their remaining life.
An underlying theme is the role memory plays in our lives and how members of the family remembered the same event very differently. I loved Fowler’s writing style, her sense of humor (there were many laugh out loud moments) and the gems she would throw out to be dissected by the reader:
“Language does this to our memories---simplifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.” (Page 48)
“There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened. The mist lifts and suddenly there we are, my good parents and their good children, their grateful children who phone for no reason but to talk, say their good-nights with a kiss, and look forward to home on the holidays. I see how, in a family like mine, love doesn’t have to be earned and it can’t be lost. Just for a moment, I see us that way; I see us all. Restored and repaired. Reunited. Refulgent.” (Page 28)
I really liked this book with its multiple messages, niggling at my conscience. I was glad to see that she didn’t beat me over the head with her message but almost gently, if that’s possible, pointed out the horror of the situation into which we have put our animal population. Highly recommended.
1. High marks for narrative moxie. No high jinx here, just deft use of first-person-addressing-the-reader, a choice that I usually loathe for its archly confidential whisperiness. She not's whispering and it works.
2. The story line could easily have turned in all sorts of implausible, high politicized (barely squeaked by on this one) and/or maudlin directions. Instead, it was entirely believable (and often great good fun), and the ending was better than any of the options I had been entertaining.
3. More high marks for an accurate and rich account of the field of animal psychology. I'm in a position to be critical and Fowler got it all right. I'm impressed!
Sorry to be vague, but once you jump in you'll see why. The book is packed with wisdom, insight, laughs and heart. Just don't read too much about it before you start.
I'm being deliberately vague, just as Rosemary, the narrator, is vague for the first third of the novel. We know that her family has been split apart: her dad, once a university psychology professor, is now a sorry drunk; her mom, the perfect housewife and mother, wallows in depression following a mental breakdown; her brother, star of the local football team and heading off to college, has become a fugitive; Rosemary herself seems to be a lost soul; and her sister's disappearance was the start of it all.
That's all you're going to get from me. Read some of the reviews below if you want spoilers--it's a very hard book to talk about without giving them.
I had high hopes for this book based on its 2014 Booker Prize nomination and plenty of LT buzz. While the breezy writing style made for a quick read and I enjoyed it to a degree, I was ultimately underwhelmed. I never really became attached to Rosemary or any of the other characters. There was a scientific basis to the story (avoiding spoilers here), which could have been covered in more depth. I'm giving this book three stars because I didn't dislike it, and because I think my disappointment was primarily a response to its prize-worthiness.
The basics: Narrated by Rosemary, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story of her family: her academic psychologist father, mother, brother Lowell, and sister Fern. Rosemary slowly tells their secrets, but we learn early on she hasn't seen Lowell in ten years and Rosemary disappeared seventeen years ago.
My thoughts: Rosemary is the best kind of unreliable narrator. She's quiet honest with the reader about how she's telling this story--out of order. But despite knowing she's not telling a linear story (although it's easy to follow and even enhanced by its structure), she still managed to surprise me more than once with key details she waits to share. She doesn't lie, but she does omit at times. Beautifully, she tells the reader she's doing it in a beautiful way: "The beauty, the utility of this story is in its power to distract."
While I enjoyed this novel from the beginning, I did find myself thinking, "it's good, but it's missing that wow factor. Is it really Booker worthy?" Then, a little less than a third of the way through, the bombshell I perhaps should have seen coming more appears, and I was enchanted. Many reviews reveal this plot point, which is fair because it's quite difficult to discuss this book without it, but I'm opting not to. I didn't know it going into this book, and I think I enjoyed the novel more because of it. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves would make a wonderful book club selection--it's both accessible and deep, and it explores many issues that are ripe for discussion. If you've already read it, I'd love to have someone to talk about it with.
Favorite passage: "Language does this to our memories--simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies."
The verdict: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a confident, accomplished novel. Its layers of plot, revelation and time are perfectly rendered. Fowler tackles issues large and small in this narrative that is itself both complicated and simple. I marvel at its combination of plot, character and construction. Rarely am I tempted to re-read books, let alone re-read them as soon as I finish, but I have a feeling this novel only improves with a second reading, which makes it a mighty strong Booker Prize contender.
Reviewed by Warriapendi Book Club, Perth, Western Australia August 2015
This book was chosen by club member Enid, who found the title by accident while trawling through book reviews. In light of Enid's education in psychology and love of animals, the storyline appealed to her. She was very pleased with her choice. The author writes with insightful commentary on society, politics and philosophy. The story itself is done as a gradual unfolding with a laconic sense of humour.
Interest from the club members was high in this book, with two of the members present not entirely satisfied or engaged with the characters, but overall agreement in the excellence of the writing. The technical construction of the book, the balance between family disfunction, tragedy and humour all packed into a mere 300 page-turnings were universal comments. The skill in researching and writing such a character as Rosemary all in the first person is phenomenal. We rated the book as an average of 7.3 of the 9 members present. The scores ranged from 7 to 10. Two members cast a vote of 10, which is quite unusually high for this club.
The definition of family has changed and evolved through the years, and Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel puts an extra twist on that definition.
Rosemary Cooke, now a young adult, narrates the story of her life – beginning in the middle and then spiraling back to the year she was six when her family was changed forever. The novel moves back and forth from the present to flashbacks of Rosemary’s past as she reveals her unique family – including a brother who has been absent for a long time, and her sister, Fern, who was removed from the family.
Exploring such themes as post-traumatic stress, memory, family connectedness and the “sameness” between living beings, Fowler takes the traditional family saga and turns it on its head.
There have been a lot of spoilers for this book (which in my opinion wrecks its impact), but you won’t read them here. What I will tell you is that some of the subject matter will be disturbing for some readers (it was for me).
Haunting, poignant and original, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel which will appeal to readers who enjoy literary fiction and family dramas.
I found a science-based piece of fiction that couldn't exactly be called science fiction because the action is present time. The science is real, mostly in psychology. I found a novel that isn't shaped like a novel. It has shape, but not like anything you've seen before. It certainly isn't chronological and all the memories retold in it may or may not be "real" memories, for what that's worth in fiction.
A girl, until the age of 5, was raised with a chimpanzee as a twin. They did everything together. While this humanized the chimp, it dehumanized the child. The child grew up with odd social skills and the inability to make friends until she hit college.
Now in college, she is befriended by a wild girl with a '20s' starlet's name. She's trying so hard to leave her "Monkeygirl" past behind her that her past is always with her. So, what the reader is looking for is what exactly is her past. Is there an exact past? How does it affect her. And others?
What I did not expect was that two American books would end up on the shortlist and that both would be books I feel richer for having read.
First up was the latest Joshua Ferris novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, a complex and delightful work. Karen Joy Fowler's We are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a novel I expected to savor. The description felt like a high-concept gimmick: Girl is raised with a chimp for a sister and tells the story of her family. Oh puh-lease. There are animals. It's bound to be quirky. It will have to end badly.
Well, yes and no. And it was worth it.
Rosemary Cooke begins telling us about herself and her family in the middle of the tale, when she is a college student. The reader doesn't see anything about Fern, her sister, the chimpanzee, until nearly a quarter of the way into the book, although I don't consider this a spoiler as this tidbit is the book's main talking point.
What Fowler does here is brilliant for a person coming reluctantly to her book. Instead of the sister thing, I'm drawn into Rosemary's story of being a former non-stop talker who says hardly anything, getting caught up in a college cafeteria disturbance and getting hauled off to jail with a free-spirited girl who is bound to be all kinds of trouble. Rosemary used to have a brother and a sister, although both are gone, and she deliberately moved far away from her parents to go to college in the mid 90's.
But boy, is she quirky and self-deprecating and, except for not telling us right away about those siblings and family history, apparently quite determined to be open and honest. And this comes after a prologue about her and her sister when they were quite young, with their mother telling them a fairy tale about two sisters -- one who speaks in toads and snakes, while the other speaks in flowers and jewels. Oh! Which is which?
The whole thing appears to be one of those dysfunctional family stories, except with an exceptionally wry narrator. She's got to be the young whose words come out as diamonds and roses.
At the as-usual dysfunctional Thanksgiving table, Rosemary gives us several hints about how her family is particularly a mess. One grandmother doesn't think much of psychologists. They're the people like B.F. Skinner, experimenting on their own families, she says. The missing relatives are not referred to. Rosemary notes that if your brother loves you, "I say it counts for something."
When the revelation comes that Rosemary's sister Fern was a chimpanzee, it's not so much a gimmick as a lightbulb moment. Oh. If she was raised along with an baby from a different species since they were both a few months old, and that sibling was removed when she started school, no wonder she never felt like she fit in.
Fowler is brilliant at depicting both how Rosemary and Fern were wild children who adored and competed with each other for the attention and love of the rest of the family. The closeness is there. So also is the sense that Rosemary didn't think of herself as a freak during those early years and how trying to fit in with other human beings has been difficult because of those early years. After all, when one has learned how to act by being with a chimp and then is dumped in with a bunch of kindergartners, crawling over desks and varying notions of personal space that different species maintain can be challenging. So can being called a monkey girl.
Rosemary clearly does not feel sorry for herself, but she does miss Fern. It's nothing that her family discusses. Neither do her parents discuss her missing brother. He left as soon as he was old enough and after Fern was gone. He is on the run and doesn't contact them often. It's pretty easy to guess what his life mission is.
As we go back to a detailed narrative of Rosemary's childhood, both before and after Fern, and back to the present day, Fowler does more than play with the timestream. She also has Rosemary let the reader know about various theories of social and biological science, all of which play roles in the way Rosemary and her family members act and react.
There also is some reporting of various animal experiments, including real families that attempted to raise children and other primates together. Fowler does not spare the reader, but she also does not wallow in the horrific things people do to other animals. Everything she includes is true, from the drugging of spiders to see what kinds of webs they make, to the primate sanctuary at Central Washington University, which closed last year and the two remaining animals moved to a sanctuary in Canada.
The plight of test animals in labs and of children -- human and otherwise -- as they try to survive their upbringing are connected in the novel by the ways in which they are woven together. Parents experiment with ways to care for their children and children try to become their own persons. Rosemary uses Fern and Fern uses Rosemary. Animals of all species do not forget what is done to them.
All the layers, all the characters and all the complicated relationships between them, all the moving back and forth in time, all the memories, all the scientific information -- they work together in a powerfully moving story of what it means to grow up in a family and what it means to love.
It is a novel that takes the tone of a memoir, told in pieces by a woman whose early life was defined by the presence -- and then absence -- of an unusual family member. The book would actually work even better if it didn't reveal, on the back blurb, that the sister whom our narrator, Rosemary, is missing happens to be a chimpanzee. The novel itself takes its time in revealing that, just as it takes its time with every major reveal, tantalizing the reader with a drop of foreshadowing before twisting off in another direction, just in the manner of uncomfortable recollection.
Uncomfortable recollection sums up the tone of the novel. But it is also compulsively readable. Rosemary's narrative folds back on itself several times, conscious of the details that are being avoided. Avoided, that is, until the very best, or last, moment. The characters, all deeply flawed, are fascinating, but their life events and intersections, as unfolded through Rosemary's slow striptease of emotional avoidance, are the best parts of the book. Well worth the read.
Each family member reacts differently: the mother is incapacitated by despair, the academic father whose experiment this was is defensive, the brother becomes a fugitive animal rights activist, and Rosemary--the "twin" of her chimp sister Fern--has some difficulties negotiating the world as a human. Called "monkey girl" by her kindergarten classmates, she has absorbed too many chimp tendencies and mannerisms, like fingering people's hair, to seem completely normal. At first she is afraid that she too will be sent away from her family; later she has difficulties becoming close to anyone since she works hard to keep her past a secret. It's a past she only gradually uncovers because her memories of childhood are mutable and confusing.
The idea of raising a chimp in a human family is based on real experiments that often had heartbreaking results for both the chimps, who end up not fitting into either world, and the people who love them. Fowler has managed to weave in facts and musings about animal cognition, emotions, and rights in ways that enhance and deepen the story rather than drag it down in a didactive agenda. It's a layered story; Rosemary is feels love but also sibling rivalry for Fern. The characters--human and chimp--and their emotions are thoroughly imagined and multidimensional.
I'm off to a roll with some amazing reads in the last two months, hope the rest of the year goes as swimmingly. :)
In addition to its very involving characters (the chimp, by the way, hardly makes more than a cameo appearance, as this story is all about the experiment's personal consequences), the structure of the novel contributes to the story's flow, and the narrator's voice--conversational, as if you're listening to her as you share some wine before a fireplace--is very affecting. Questions of family, identity, and memory are all raised, but with a story that captures you with every page and a fair lacing of humor.
This is the best novel I read in a long time.
How to review this book without spoiling the first quarter of it? All other reviews that I read give it away, and I wished as I read it that I didn't already know but could have discovered or guessed it as the author intended. So I'm not going to say. But I urge you to avoid other reviews, even the book flap, and to pay close attention whenever the sister is mentioned.
This story is narrated by Rosemary as an adult, telling of growing up with her parents, brother, Lowell, and her sister, Fern. What an extraordinary life they lead! While this is not a book of humor, Rosemary's (Fowler's) descriptions are told with wit and intelligence. You'll enjoy every bit of this, and it might make you cry.
I don't want to give any of this book away so I'm going to be vague here. Just know this, this book won't just break your heart, it will rip out your beating heart and won't give it back. "We are all Completely Besides Ourselves" explores what truly makes a family a family. Even an "unconventional" family such as the one in this book has a place in this world and author Karen Joy Fowler sheds light on just how far love can go. Sisters Rosemary and Fern demonstrate that love can overcome any barrier, even language.
All that being said, this is not a love story, or a happy family story. This is a dark, probing story that will have you questioning things you may have never pondered, but... in a good way.
A must read for all, especially fans of animals or Jane Goodall.
I'll creep you out a little bit in that uncanny valley way I have. Or else I'll annoy you; I get that a lot. Just don't hold it against Fern. You'd like Fern.
Rosemary Cooke starts telling her story in the middle, when she is a university student, but the events that have shaped her life happened much earlier. Decisions made by her psychologist parents made Rosemary a friendless outsider throughout her childhood, derided and despised by her classmates, and things got even worse when she was twelve, as her older brother Lowell ran away from home and got himself into such bad trouble that he could never come home again.
Even as a student in a different state where no-one knows about her past, Rosemary is told that she crowds people by standing too close to them, and can’t stop herself from reaching out to touch the hair of a woman with an ornately braided hairstyle. Rosemary does not altogether like Harlow, but seems to be drawn to her because she reminds her of Fern. Harlow is not afraid to cause a scene, in fact she was revelling in causing a scene in the cafe where Rosemary first saw her, and she has very long arms - long enough to allow her to get her handcuffed wrists from behind her back, under her bottom and legs to the front.
As I was reading it, I couldn’t see how it could end happily, but things ended better than I could have hoped for the Cooke siblings.
I loved this book and am really glad that it was chosen for my book club, as it’s the best book I’ve read all year.
I found this to be one of those books that is so overhyped, it ends up being disappointing. The entire book feels like a trick. Start in the middle...foreshadowing...straight-up hints...and finally, the big reveal! Which is not so big, what with all the hints and foreshadowing. And, of course, the cover image.
The amount of abuse--physical and psychological--in this book is upsetting. And there is another trick of hiding it until the middle, with only some hints. But there is people on animal abuse, animal on animal, animal on people (though, if the animal doesn't understand, does it count? or do they understand?), institution on animal, institution on people.
Fowler does have some great lines: "Every girl's dream, if she can't have a vampire" (237), "I'm unclear on the definition of person the courts have been using. Something that sieves out dolphins but lets corporations slide on through." (305).
I wonder, though, at her saying her mom can't be passed of as an innocent party (298). She was not the researcher. She was part of the study herself--and though she seems not innocent, and she was a key element of her husband's academic study. But she was not a psychologist nor an employee. She was just the mom (and it's always mom's fault in psychology)--and she was the mom who went into a deep depression at her own perceived failure. Failure at the impossible.
But then, what kind of people would keep one daughter home from kindergarten because the other can't go? And then send her in the middle of the year, totally unsocialized to kids her own age--all in the name of science?
I do think this would be an excellent high school read--perhaps even in a science class. The issues of research, abuse, and treatment of animals are all important to discuss. It kind of reads like a YA novel as well--especially as the narration feels like speaking written down, and not writing, if that makes sense. I think those of us that are older are already well aware of these issues, and know what we think.
Aside from the examination of family, it’s also a book which takes advantage of a slightly off-kilter perspective to examine whether we’re all as empathetic as we like to think and engage with the faults and foibles of the human race – such observations as the one about money are wise without being jejune. Stir in a number of memorable characters and this is a joyous though thoughtful read. Just don’t spoil yourself before starting.