Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Putnam; 320 pages; $26.95).
Karen Joy Fowler begins her eighth work of fiction smack-dab in the middle of the story. “In 1996,” she writes, “ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.” How odd it is for one woman to have two siblings missing, I thought. Just like that, Fowler had my undivided attention. Immediately, Fowler immerses you in her story; instinctively, you know We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will be unique and different. You will not be disappointed. For Rose, Fowler’s narrator, this tale is cathartic and necessary. For us, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is emotional, riveting, and very unexpected.
We travel from the middle back to the beginning. A mother keeps two baby books for her two baby daughters to record their first milestones. Rose learns to walk at ten months of age, while Fern can “make it all the way downstairs by herself, swinging on the railings.” Fern’s rapid development pushes Rose to progress faster. When she is ten months of age, Rose weighs fourteen pounds and seven ounces and already has “four teeth, two on the top, two on the bottom.” Fern meanwhile weighs ten pounds and two ounces. The first word Rose utters is “bye-bye,” which she signs at eleven months of age and says at thirteen months. At ten months, Fern signs “cup” for the very first time.
No, these babies are not twins. Rose is a human child. Fern is a chimpanzee. I bet that got your attention. Fowler leaves breadcrumbs throughout the narrative to clue in careful readers to Fern’s true nature.
Rose’s parents are scientists, and her mother and father involve both Rose and Fern in a scientific experiment, the ramifications of which will affect Rose and their son, Lowell, for decades. I was appalled at the actions of both parents and never connected with either character. How horrible to put your own family through a scientific study.
The kicker is that Rose cannot remember what happened to Fern. One day, Rose woke up and her sister was gone; no one wanted to talk about her disappearance. Rose’s memory is like a “tule fog,” unlike other fogs because it is “fixed and substantial.” Rose is short for Rosemary, but the name is not for remembrance in this case. Fowler effectively illustrates the unreliability of memory, especially in early childhood development.
However, Rose never really rids herself of Fern. Her lost sister is like an amputated limb one senses but is gone forever. Rose still
retains some of Fern’s animalistic nature: “I often felt wild back then….” She also admires those traits in others, as Fowler hilariously portrays when Rose meets Harlow while attending college. In the school cafeteria one day, Harlow’s boyfriend tells her he wants space. Harlow responds by throwing things and violently carrying on, reminding a delighted Rose of Fern. Fowler uses animalism as a recurring motif in her novel to great effect.
Well-researched from experiments on chimps and apes to the early space program to pop culture references to fascinating information on memory, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves focuses on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Fowler morphs one woman’s childhood into the stuff of science and makes for compelling reading.
What ultimately happens to Fern is beyond words. When I reached the end, I cried, and I cried, and I cried, and I was completely and utterly beside myself. Fowler’s emotional, pitch-perfect tale is perfect for fans of Sara Gruen’s Ape House and Lucy by Laurence Gonzales, but We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is even better. A well-orchestrated plot, an immersive setting, and unforgettable characters propel Fowler’s novel into a class all its own, making it one of the year’s best fictional works.