Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a tremendously well-written, fascinating, heartwarming, bizarre, and somewhat frustrating book, but I couldn't stop reading it.

It's the story of the Cooke family—Mother, Dad, Lowell, Fern, and Rosemary. Fern and Rosemary, only a few months apart, are inseparable, constantly imitating each other, getting themselves into trouble (and telling on each other), and participating in studies conducted by Dad's graduate students in psychology. Life seems idyllic—although young Rosemary never seems to stop talking—until Fern disappears when Rosemary is five, and this disappearance strains the family, eventually leading to Lowell's departure.

"Though I was only five when she disappeared from my life, I do remember her. I remember her sharply—her smell and touch, scattered images of her face, her ears, her chin, her eyes. Her arms, her feet, her fingers. But I don't remember her fully, not the way Lowell does."

The thing is, Fern wasn't just any sibling, and she didn't just disappear. Fern was a chimpanzee, raised by the Cookes as part of a study that "twinned" a baby chimp and a human baby, to determine the effects on the development of both. There were times when Rosemary felt outshone by Fern and what Fern could do, but she still felt like she mattered. And when funding for the study ended, and the Cookes began to have concerns about Rosemary's safety and the safety of others with Fern, she was taken to a university laboratory.

"One day, every word I said was data, and carefully recorded for further study and discussion. The next, I was just a little girl, strange in her way, but of no scientific interest to anyone."

But while Fern left when Rosemary was five, Fern's presence and her disappearance affected Rosemary's life tremendously, from the way she interacted with others more like a chimp than a human, to the destruction of her relationship with her older brother, as well as the end of her father's career, and her family's happiness. As she grew, Rosemary became a person more comfortable with silence, one more interested in blending in unnoticed than standing out. And as a college student at the University of California, Davis, some people didn't even know that Rosemary had siblings.

This is the story of secrets and things left unsaid. It's the story of an experiment with noble purpose that left a family worse for wear, and affected the trajectory of each of the members' lives. It's also the story of the unreliability of human memory, how what we believe isn't always what happened (nor is what we're told). And it's also the story of someone determined to set the record straight, to unravel fact and remembrance into a coherent thread.

I thought Karen Joy Fowler did a great job creating the Cooke family and fleshing out both the experiment that brought Fern to their family and the aftereffects of her departure. The dialogue, the characters, and the emotions they felt and conveyed were moving and compelling, and it hooked me on the book pretty quickly.

I felt at times, however, that the book didn't know if it wanted to be simply a novel or a novel with a message about animal testing and cruelty to research animals. This is a topic that needs serious attention but the details provided about the Animal Liberation Front didn't really mesh with the rest of the plot. I also felt as if an entire thread of the plot that involved one of Rosemary's fellow students (and a ventriloquist's dummy) was distracting and didn't quite fit, nor was it fleshed out the way it could have been.

On the whole, though, I really enjoyed this book. It was completely not what I expected (I feared it was going to be bizarre) and it really warmed my heart. It's not perfect, much like the characters whose stories it tells, but that is part of what makes it affecting.

"My brother and my sister have led extraordinary lives, but I wasn't there, and I can't tell you that part. I've stuck here to the part I can tell, the part that's mine, and still everything I've said is all about them, a chalk outline around the space where they should have been. Three children, one story."

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