There is a difficulty in writing about New York Times bestselling-author Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves that has little to do with how I felt about the book and a whole lot to do with expressing what a wonderful read it was without actually disrupting your enjoyment of the book.
In order to tell you about this book without being vague or wishy-washy, I’ll have to reveal something to you that happens on page 77. So be warned: this review contains a spoiler. If you’d rather not have your reading experience tainted, then I’ll simply say this to you: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story of Rosemary Cooke, a young woman who lives in near silence and solitude in an effort to forget about a childhood trauma to do with her sister Fern and the loss of her brother Lowell, now wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. It’s a compelling and thought-provoking read that makes you think about what it means to be family and what it means to be human. And that’s all I’ll say. Unless, of course, you don’t mind a little spoiler. In that case, read on.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves begins, as the narrator tells us, in the middle of the story and jumps around in time. There’s a reason for this that is crucial to the telling of the story. So once again, this is your last spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know what happens on page 77, just believe what I said above and close your browser now.
Still with me? Great! What we learn in Chapter 5 is that Rosemary’s sister Fern is actually a chimpanzee. And the reason she waits so long to tell us this is because she wants us to get to know Fern first as a person, the way she did as a child. Rosemary’s father was a behavioral psychologist. As an experiment, he and his wife decide to raise Fern as their own child alongside Rosemary and her older brother Lowell. In the end, the experiment has long-lasting effects on the family that neither parent had anticipated.
The book is smart and engaging. Narrated by Rosemary, I was totally drawn into her world. Obviously the story of a child raised along with a chimp is going to be fascinating. But what really drew me in was Rosemary’s sense that she doesn’t quite fit into the human world — that she doesn’t quite belong anywhere. And in a way, I think that’s a feeling we can all relate to at one time or another.