Monday, December 1, 2014

#58 (2014/CBR6) "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler

I've read, and didn't particularly like, The Jane Austen Book Club, so I wasn't especially interested in reading another book by Karen Joy Fowler. However, what happens so often these days occurred again: I saw a number of positive reviews of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014) on Cannonball Read, and they convinced me that I should give it a try.

The story revolves around Rosemary Cook, a rather aimless college student at UC Davis with little to no friends. We know almost immediately that Rosemary's had some traumatic childhood experiences that she buries with confusion and denial. Rosemary mysteriously explains that both her brother and sister left when she was a child, and that she hasn't seen them in years. As the story unfolds, jumping around from her childhood, to present day, and even to the future, we finally learn about Rosemary's secrets and how they continue to affect her and her family.

I guess you could say that there's a "twist" in this novel. I knew the basics before I picked up the book, but I kind of wish I didn't, so I won't discuss it until later in the review. However, I have to admit that it wasn't until I knew the twist that I was intrigued enough to give this book a try, so the spoiler might be worth it.

I'm having some trouble diluting the complexity of this book into a clear, concise review. There was a lot going on, with a lot to think about, and the mystery of the past to keep it going. This book could not be more different from The Jane Austen Book Club. Instead of cookie-cutter caricatures, these characters were unique, uniquely formed by their circumstances, and sometimes unlikable. It was tragic, philosophical, thought-provoking and definitely worth reading.

In case you've already read the book or are interested in the mysterious twist, once the reader has some idea of the closeness between Rosemary and her sister, Fern, they learn that Fern is actually a chimpanzee. Her psychologist father decided to raise a chimpanzee along with his own child to study their development. Rosemary has a fascinating relationship with Fern, including jealousy of her abilities and a closeness that is unmatched. But like how most of these studies ended in real life, Fern is too large, destructive, and dangerous to stay with the family forever. When Rosemary is five years old, the family moves, and Fern disappears. Rosemary is left with no explanation but the guilt of feeling that it is her fault.

One of the fascinating aspects of this book is that Rosemary is recounting her five-year-old memories. Fowler does a very good job of getting inside the pysche of a young child and her understanding of the world; and even more impressively, the psyche of a five-year-old child who grew up with a chimp as part of a psych experiment. But this story isn't just about Rosemary, and this experiment affects the entire family in different ways. Lowell, Rosemary's brother, is older and more reactive. Instead of burying himself in denial like Rosemary, he rebels. In addition, Rosemary's mother breaks under the sorrow and the pressure while Rosemary's father is forced to shoulder all of the blame.

Finally, growing up with an animal as part of your family changes your relationship with animals. It would be impossible to write this book without taking a look at how humans treat animals in this world. Fowler brings up the issues of animal testing and cruelty to animals as a question without a good answer. "The world runs," Lowell said, "on the fuel of this endless, fathomless misery. People know it, but they don't mind what they don't see. Make them look and they mind, but you're the one they hate." (232)

I don't think there were any characters that I really liked in this book, which sometimes made it challenging, but the mystery of Rosemary's life kept it fast-paced. I'm also very impressed by Fowler's ability to juggle so many different things and make it work. I've now read the book weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about it.

No comments: