Readers often look to Man Booker Prize winners for their next read, but Karen Joy Fowler makes a strong case for shortlisted works with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Shortlisted for the prize in 2014, this novel’s light and humorous take on heavy subjects like family dysfunction and morality is an absolute must-read.
Talking about this novel in any detailed way necessitates a spoiler, so consider this a warning!
Narrator Rosemary Cooke tells us the story of her life in seemingly random order. Central to the tale is her childhood, with brother Lowell and sister Fern, in Indiana with a psychologist father and homemaker mother. With all the reluctance of a therapy patient unsure how much to admit and when, Rosemary eventually reveals that Fern is a chimpanzee and that the two were part of a twin-sisterhood study conducted by her father to observe human-animal behavior. When the study is abruptly ended and Fern banished when the girls are 5, the consequences for the family are tragic. Lowell sets down the path of an animal rights activist, eventually becoming a fugitive on the run from the FBI. Rosemary’s mother breaks emotionally while her father shuts down. Fern is sent to a lab whose conditions are less than homely. And Rosemary, once a lively, talkative, chimp-like child, becomes silent. When years later she befriends wild drama student Harlow at university, Rosemary beings to confront her past feelings of isolation on account of her simian past and guilt for the role she played in Fern’s banishment.
Fowler, who readers may know as author of The Jane Austen Book Club, does so many things right in this novel. The narration through Rosemary – a dynamic, flawed, questionably reliable character – strikes the delicate balance between amusing youthfulness and crippling intensity. The nonlinear plot that jumps between childhood, a more recent college past, and the future that is Rosemary’s present serves the themes of selective memory, family dysfunction, and the forms and functions of love and guilt rather than detracting from them.
With Fern, Fowler brings up the controversial subject of animal rights and testing, an unresolved ethical dilemma that is excellently researched and woven into the heart of the narrative. In exploring human dominance over animals for the greater good, the story cleverly demonstrates how humans unwittingly do the same to each other. Though Rosemary’s parents’ decision to adopt Fern was a well-meaning one, what Rosemary’s mother describes as her desire to give their children an extraordinary life, the results are not quite as predicted. While not all of us can blame our family dysfunction and personal hang-ups on a similar experience, we can all admit to resenting the parental decisions that have had profound (read: negative) effects on our lives. To read this universal condition in such a gripping novel is a little unsettling but an absolute must.