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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Review

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Begin in the middle. Rosemary, the narrator of this engaging novel, was an overly garrulous child, and received this advice back when everyone was trying to shut her up. Hence, our acquaintance with her begins in 1996, during her fifth year at UC Davis. Witnessing a loud and messy breakup in the dining hall, Rosemary is fascinated by the impulsive young woman who ultimately draws her in to the scene. They go to jail together and begin a strange friendship --- if you can be friends with someone named Harlow who talks her way into your apartment while you’re not there and drinks your beer.

"Every human family member’s choices are influenced by the time with Fern, and while this compelling novel provides closure about the characters, the uncomfortable realities of the costs of experimenting on animals will remain with readers for some time to come."

From jail, Rosemary calls her father, and we begin to see some of the contours of the family dynamic. “Because of who he was, a professional man used to having his own way, my father managed to get the arresting officer on the phone. Officer Haddick had children of his own: he treated my father with all the sympathy my father felt he deserved. Soon they were calling each other Vince and Arnie, and the assault charge had been reduced to interfering with a police officer in the performance of his duty and soon after that it was dropped altogether.” Rosemary agrees to discuss it all thoroughly with her parents at Thanksgiving back in Bloomington, Indiana. 

The family Thanksgiving meal is a standard fictional trope for good reason. What other occasion is so rife with comic material? Karen Joy Fowler exploits it adroitly, and further establishes the intimacy we feel with her. “My father made a crude joke. He made the same joke or some variation of it every time Bob gave him the opening, which was every other year. If the joke were witty, I’d include it, but it wasn’t. You’d think less of him and thinking less of him is my job, not yours. The silence that followed was filled with pity for my mother, who could have married Will Barker if she hadn’t lost her mind and chosen my father, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, fly-fishing atheist from Indianapolis, instead.” 

But beneath the comic surface of part one, Rosemary dances around the long absences of her older brother, Lowell, and a sister named Fern, who, we discover on page 77, is a chimpanzee. (I thought long and hard about revealing this, but observant readers will notice the tiny chimp hanging from a huge tree on the cover.) In part two, we go back to the beginning, to when Rosemary was five and shuttled off to her grandparents’ house for a couple of weeks while her mom recovered and her family moved to a new house. When she got to the new house, Fern was gone. Where she went and why is the puzzle that defines Rosemary’s life. Along the way, the puzzle pieces illuminate the nature of memory and of family. The prose remains funny and honest, and entirely suited to the telling of what is, in many ways, a tragedy.

WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES takes us back to UC Davis in 1996, where Lowell finds his little sister after an absence of 10 years, and finally forward to 2012. “An election year in the U.S., as if you needed to be reminded, the vituperative tunes of the Ayn Rand Marching Band bleating from the airwaves.” Every human family member’s choices are influenced by the time with Fern, and while this compelling novel provides closure about the characters, the uncomfortable realities of the costs of experimenting on animals will remain with readers for some time to come.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on May 31, 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
by Karen Joy Fowler

  • Publication Date: February 25, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Plume
  • ISBN-10: 0142180823
  • ISBN-13: 9780142180822