“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler

Everyone says this about every book, I know. By the end of the term it’s pretty cliché, but honestly and truly, if you want to experience this book – and that’s what it can be, an experience – you have to leave now, and read it first. Then you can see what I have to say about it. But seriously, no peeking! This book review is for the eyes of those who have read it already (and for those who do not care about twists and turns – because this book does have a lot of content to offer, not just a surprise inside).

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is her newest book, written earlier this year. It’s a story – about a story – that starts in the middle – which, in a normal story, would be where the action happens. But, because it’s not the story about the story’s middle, this is where ‘setting the scene’ happens. Are you lost yet? It’s a little Memento at first, with things just happening and having no reason for any of it. Her middle isn’t quite as crazy, though – this isn’t science fiction in that sense.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is three-quarters autobiography and one-quarter desperation, depression, and, finally, hope. The scene is set when our narrator, Rosemary, is in college, meeting a woman named Harlow for the first time. Harlow, as Rosemary tells us about others in her tale, isn’t necessarily a part of the story we need to get attached to – her purpose is to make Rosemary open up, if only in her head. Almost all the storytelling is told through Rosemary’s retelling of events, her thoughts and feelings.

Rosemary gets sent to jail for the first time for a minor disturbance in a cafeteria Harlow started with her boyfriend.  Harlow is spitfire, wild and crazy – the opposite of Rosemary, but Rosemary hasn’t always been that way. As a child she was out there, talked all the time and did the crazy things kids her age usually did. But she lost a sister, Fern, after spending half a decade together, and it changed her life. They were two peas in a pod, closer than can be, and the two of them along with Rosemary’s brother, her father and mother made a really happy family. But she eventually lost her brother, too. They just disappeared – she has no idea where either of them went.

Rosemary went from exuberant and lively to a more reserved and withdrawn version of herself. Fern brought life to her life – it’s obvious from the pain she feels, even though Rosemary doesn’t explicitly express it. Rosemary’s family changed, too, when Fern left. They all became quiet, and they all withdrew into themselves. That’s why her brother, Lowell, left. He couldn’t take it anymore – he needed to get out the house, he needed to live again and do something. Their home was a place where everyone was standing still. Fern leaving, and everyone just looking past it, sent him over the edge.

Usually, a broken home and a broken family are normal after a child disappears. The tragedies we see when children are abducted or killed are received with grief and despair – all completely and absolutely normal, human reactions. Unfortunately, the same isn’t always said when a chimp leaves your life. A ‘pet’ some from the outside might even say. When a chimp leaves, you don’t get to shut down and stop everything – you just have to move on.

Wait a second, I’m sorry – I might have just Memento’d you. Did I forget to mention Fern was a chimpanzee, and that Rosemary’s father is a scientist? Of course I did, because Rosemary fails to mention it, too. You hear about the middle for a while, and then you get to hear the beginning – how Fern came to be a part of their lives. The prevalence of chimps in households was increasing, and her father wanted to expand the research available in the field. They raised Rosemary and Fern together, making them both part of the experiment – they wanted to know what would happen when they grew up together. Rosemary and Fern were attached at the hip, growing up as normally as you can when your sister is a chimp. They were studied by Rosemary’s father and the graduate students that he received to help as part of a special research grant, with Fern’s development the specific concern.

It’s unclear from Rosemary’s perspective if their family expected it, but Fern became a second daughter. Rosemary never considered her anything other than a sister – chimp or not. As Fern got older, however, the differences in their species became more and more apparent. Fern had more and more accidents, when a particular incident with a grad student sent things over the edge. They had to end the experiment before she got any stronger and uncontrollable, and they sent her away. The family, from then on, never talked about her and no one told Rosemary where Fern was. Fern was just gone from Rosemary’s life, forever.

Rosemary’s brother, Lowell (a human!), couldn’t take it. The family shut down, but not in grief – just in general. They stopped being a family, they stopped showing love the way they used to. He left, and Rosemary is just being reunited with him in the middle of her story – though not the middle of ours. The middle of our story is the beginning, and then there’s the end that Rosemary is experiencing as it happens. As I said before, those times are filled with sadness and happiness alike, with twists and turns of their own. I won’t spoil those, for that you’ll really have to read the story.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an amazing testament of love and family, despite boundaries created by genus and species. In a feminist science fiction course, this book might seem almost out of place. But Fowler presents a take on feminism we don’t think of very often – one that takes feminism to literally mean people should be equal, one that redefines what ‘people’ should mean. Fowler presents a world where you can see the human in an animal, and where the animal in the human can be. A compelling read, it’s certainly worth taking the time – it will fly by, as it does for Rosemary, as you hear of her tale of loss, reunion, and discovery.

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