Review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I loved this book by Karen Joy Fowler, and found myself thinking about it quite a bit after finishing it.  While the story itself is an unusual one, the themes – family, psychology, memory, and our relationship with animals – are common ones that touch us every day.  

The main character and narrator is Rosemary.  She begins her story with her college years —  because as a child when she talked too much, her father would say “don’t start at the beginning, start in the middle.”  

As a result, the beginning of this book is a bit hard to get into.  As Rosemary tells us about her life in college, she seems like a pretty ordinary student, and I found myself wondering what was the point of the book. Since this book was nominated for tons of awards a few years ago, and won the PEN/Faulkner Prize, you probably already know what this book is about.  Or at least you think you do.    

It’s a slow beginning for a reason.  Rosemary wants us to see her, and her sister Fern, as sisters, before you only think of them as a girl and a chimpanzee.  

I found everything about this story fascinating, from the way it’s told out of chronological order to the frequent adjustments in what we know about Rosemary’s life.  While she’s always the narrator, during the course of the story she learns her brother’s perspective, her mother’s, and even uncovers her own forgotten childhood memories.  The one perspective we never fully get is Fern’s, although our narrator puts us into Fern’s mind as much as is humanly possible.  

This book touches on so many important themes and issues.  The value of research and the harm it does to animals.  How we’re influenced by our siblings and parents, and how we are torn apart when we lose them.  How our memories aren’t fixed, but shift and change throughout our lives.

Rosemary wrestles with who she is, and it was this that I found most moving.  She calls herself the “monkey girl”, sometimes in a good way, sometimes not.  She talks about how she’s inherently different from everyone around her, even calling herself the “uncanny valley.”  Rosemary has come to define herself by what she isn’t — she isn’t her missing brother Lowell, or her sister Fern.  She’s the one who stays.  She spends her life struggling to define herself in some way independent of her family, which I could identify with.  What does it mean to truly “be yourself”?  I’m not sure such a thing really exists.  I think the best we can do is understand the things that shape us, and try to use those things in a positive way.  

I found this an amazing work of fiction, for how complex it was, and yet how relatable.  Fowler paints a vivid, likeable picture of Rosemary, from her childhood chattiness and love of big words, to her aimlessness and isolation as an adult.  This is a book that isn’t simply about animal cruelty or childhood loss; it’s quite a bit more than that.  

Challenges: This is Book #1 on my TBR Pile Challenge.  It’s also (sort of) a book of social science for the Read Harder 2018 Challenge.

  8 comments for “Review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

  1. January 25, 2018 at 11:03 pm

    I loved this book.

  2. January 27, 2018 at 12:27 am

    You’ve rated this book higher than I did. While I enjoyed much f it I was frustrated by the way Fowler included info about past experiments. It just felt clumsy to me

    • January 29, 2018 at 7:39 pm

      I can see that, although it didn’t bother me. I felt the character was naturally going to start exploring the history, and the information felt relevant to her state of mind – not just a fact-delivery device. I thought the research was fascinating and disturbing.

  3. January 29, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    This is one of those books I’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t managed to read yet. I usually really like the PEN/Faulkner winners, so I should probably bump this up my never-ending list of books to read!

  4. February 4, 2018 at 1:24 am

    This sounds like an interesting story, but I just can’t do sad stories about animals! I’ll have to pass on this one, I think.

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