In a story with many beginnings, this is the molten core: a family’s implosion with grief. The father becomes a taciturn drunk, his great experiment a debacle. The mother retreats to stricken silence from which she seems no more likely to recover than any mother who’s lost a child. Rosemary’s beloved older brother strikes out bitterly on a path of no return. The children are told that Fern has been sent to a ‘farm’ … The novel’s fresh diction and madcap plot — swapped suitcases, a Madame Defarge ventriloquist’s dummy, lost bikes and drug-laced coed high jinks — bend the tone toward comedy, but it never mislays its solemn raison d’être. Monkeyshines aside, this is a story of Everyfamily in which loss engraves relationships, truth is a soulful stalker and coming-of-age means facing down the mirror, recognizing the shape-shifting notion of self.
Cagey, feisty, funny and philosophical, Karen Joy Fowler’s sixth novel slyly establishes much of its inner essence — to do with the damaged dynamics of its narrator’s family — before it spells out certain crucial details of its plot … Opening the action in 1996 means starting ‘in the middle of my story,’ according to Rosemary, and the deeper she goes into her tale, the more fluidly the book becomes a juggling of flashbacks, flash-forwards and careful avoidances of germane information … The heart of the novel — and it has a big, warm, loudly beating heart throughout — is in its gradually pieced-together tale of family togetherness, disruption and reconciliation.
Fowler's novel is superb, but I've already warned a couple of sensitive animal lovers I know away from it. You should read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves only if you're willing to be upset and probably permanently haunted … Fern disappears when Rosemary is 5, and we don't learn what happened to her until the end of the novel. What Rosemary does chronicle, however, is how her family was shattered by Fern's leave-taking. Lowell grows up to be a militant animal-rights activist wanted by the FBI; her mother descends into depression; her father drinks. Rosemary thinks she endured the worst fate of all … Fowler's smart and exquisitely sad novel provokes us to think about a lot of aspects of our relationship to animals that most of us would rather ignore.
At the center of Fowler's story is Rosemary Cooke, who narrates with a bit of a barbed edge while looking at her past, first as a precocious toddler and most prominently as a troubled, introverted twentysomething at UC Davis in 1996 … The loss of both children has left the Cooke family shattered, particularly with regard to Fern — who happens to be a chimpanzee. Fowler takes her time revealing that rather key detail in a way even Rosemary describes as ‘irritatingly coy,’ but the choice points toward her hazy feelings about her family that slowly come to a boil as the novel continues … Rosemary has her failings as a narrator: Lowell's voice hardly distinguishes itself from hers — a fact later explained when Rosemary admits she retold her brother's story so he sounded more lucid. The admission sheds light on her own damaged character even as it robs us from truly knowing his.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves isn’t just about an unusual childhood experiment; it’s about a lifetime spent in the shadow of grief. Clearly, something traumatic happened when Rosemary was 5, something that turned her from a loquacious little girl into a quiet young woman. But unearthing the details of that event means digging in a mental landscape strewn with psychological land mines … Although there’s little doubt where her sympathies lie, Fowler manages to subsume any polemical motive within an unsettling, emotionally complex story that plumbs the mystery of our strange relationship with the animal kingdom — relatives included.
In a novel that blends fiction and science, Fowler takes on what it means to be a family, the nature of memory and grief, and where the dividing line between the human and humanity lies … While Rosemary has been afraid to let herself long for – or even think about – her siblings for years, she's been shaped by her relationship to them, nonetheless. And when she does break her long silence about what happened to Fern, the events are devastating enough to remake the life of every member of her family.
In flashbacks, [Rosemary] pictures the extraordinary lifestyle her parents constructed. Her tone calls to mind a patient talking frankly to her therapist, presenting episodes from her childhood with a bracing vividness that is touched by uncertainty … The strength of Fowler’s writing is its piercing evocation of the dynamics of family. Rosemary’s relatives may be eccentric, but their patterns of guilt, affection and evasiveness are familiar. Where the novel proves less successful is in seeking – indeed, straining – to make bigger points about the inherent brutality and insouciance of humankind, the ‘endless, fathomless misery’ we each day choose to ignore.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves resonates with Rosemary's grief for her missing alter ego and sister, and for the adored Lowell, who communicates with the family only through the occasional cryptic postcard. But it's Rosemary's problems as a young adult – informed by her ‘simian’ past – that shape the narrative. Who and what is she? … In lesser hands, such whirlwind antics might juxtapose oddly with the profound questions the novel raises about animal rights, sibling loyalty, parental subterfuge, self-delusion, guilt and the notion of ownership. But Fowler is neither kooky or didactic: her narrative flits adeptly between registers, mixing pleasure and pain with all the naughty chutzpah of a chimp twizzling a feather duster.
The breezy tone of the early chapters gives way to a very disturbing tale. We who thought we were the narrator's confidants now realize that much has been withheld, and what is in store can't be good. Part of my fascination and admiration for this book is the non-linear story line. Fowler skillfully keeps dozens of plot threads fresh in the reader's mind as she moves backward and forward in time. The instances where I needed to retrace my steps only added more substance to the journey … Ms. Fowler cleverly weaves research and anecdotes from the scientific record into her story of human inquiry and fallibility. You travel through this story hoping to proclaim a villain, but you can't. All the players are treated fairly. There is plenty of blame and praise to spread around, and for the reader, wisdom gained.
[Fowler] goes darker and deeper with this novel, which grapples with the capricious nature of memory, the lies family members tell themselves and each other, and, most of all, the question at the heart of all great art: What does it mean to be human? … Fowler manages to touch on so much while telling her story – the birth of the animal-rights movement, a quick primer on the real chimp-human experiments, a dip into the way psychologists view the world (Fowler's father was one, at Indiana University) – but it never feels like homework.
Rosemary recounts her family history at first haltingly and then with increasingly articulate passion. In 1996, she is a troubled student at U.C. Davis who rarely speaks out loud. She thinks as little as possible about her childhood and the two siblings no longer part of her family … By waiting to clarify that Fern was a chimpanzee, Rosemary challenges readers to rethink concepts of kinship and selfhood; for Rosemary and Lowell, Fern was and will always be a sister, not an experiment in raising a chimpanzee with human children … A fantastic novel: technically and intellectually complex, while emotionally gripping.