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.