We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Karen Joy FowlerIt would have been interesting to read ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ without knowing the twist which is revealed on page 77. However, as Karen Joy Fowler’s sixth novel has been one of the more commercially successful and widely discussed Man Booker Prize shortlisted books in recent years, I assume that the majority of potential readers will already know the basic premise of the story. Although I don’t think knowing about the big revelation beforehand lessened my enjoyment of the novel, if you still don’t want to read any further spoilers, then look away now.

Set in Bloomington, Indiana, ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ is narrated by Rosemary Cooke whose psychologist father introduced a chimpanzee called Fern to the family during her early childhood in the 1970s as part of a radical experiment. For the first few years of her life, Rosemary and Fern live as twins more or less from birth while her father observes their behaviour and language use. However, Fern’s disappearance has a huge effect on Rosemary, her parents and her brother Lowell. In later years, she tries to make sense of her unconventional childhood and the vast extent to which it has affected her adult life. As a fifth-year student at University of California, Davis, in 1996, Rosemary is reluctant to talk about her family and has no real friends until she meets Harlow at a time when she is finally forced to confront her past.

Choosing not to confirm Fern’s identity until a quarter of the way through the story may initially seem a bit gimmicky but the non-linear storytelling serves a more serious purpose in highlighting Rosemary’s evasiveness as a young adult and the complex reasons behind it. As Fern left the family when Rosemary was only five years old, her memories are sometimes hazy yet sometimes vivid leading Rosemary to question why she only remembers things selectively and it is not until the end that we learn what happened to Fern.

It is worth noting that Fowler’s father was also a psychology professor who studied animal behaviour (albeit rats in a lab rather than a chimpanzee in the family home). As a result, Fowler draws on some of her own experiences and her overall message about the damage which can be caused by similar experiments, communicated mostly through Lowell’s animal rights crusades, is not particularly subtle. However, she explores the nuances of family dynamics in a more understated manner, raising intriguing questions about parenting and reconciliation.

Overall, ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ is a thought-provoking and highly original story about a dysfunctional family written with real empathy and quirkiness.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

  1. Christine A

    Great review – I was lucky enough to read this last year and had been warned not to read any reviews beforehand. The reveal took me completely by surprise. I have a bit of a thing about reading books that have been plot spoiled so was glad to come the book fresh so to speak.

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  2. I loved this book! Although I can’t actually remember whether I knew the twist in the story. I found just found it a really insightful read. Great review by the way 🙂

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  3. I knew the twist as well but didn’t detract from the book (in fact I know some readers who didn’t know the twist, read it, and felt fooled…). Anyway, I thought the story worked on so many levels – it was interesting, thought-provoking and made me laugh and cry.

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  4. Susie | Novel Visits

    This sounds like a really interesting book. I’m adding it to the ever lengthening TBR list!

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  5. I wrote about this myself when it came out. [Blogging the Book 2014/3] I went back and checked what I thought because I couldn’t remember whether I knew the plot twist or not. I really enjoyed it, and suggested readers look out for clues. Reviewers and bloggers are often more considerate than the radio and TV, and certainly I remember at least one Radio 4 programme that gave the game away, but I think I had read the book by then. It seems a shame, when everyone is so careful about film plots, not to be more respectful of books. But how often, and it is very often, have you had to rush to the radio to mute a programme that is reading from a brand new book on your TBR pile?

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    • Sorry for the late reply – I agree that most bloggers are considerate about giving away spoilers. If I really feel I need to, then I will give a warning. It can be hard to avoid spoilers for anything (TV shows, films, books) if you use the Internet, particularly social media.

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  6. My book club read this and we thought the same thing. Some of us had the edition with the chimpanzee right on the cover… which was a bummer. The ones that had the more illustrative cover were genuinely shocked when the reveal was made!

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  7. I loved this book. Thought it interesting and challenging, about love and loss.

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  8. I really wasn’t keen on the book unfortunately.
    ~SS

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