In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, Rosemary Cooke begins her story in the middle. She is in college in a cafeteria where she meets Harlow who is angry at her boyfriend and having a tantrum. Rosemary defends Harlow during her arrest and gets arrested herself. We soon learn Rosemary is broken, in a way. She is not close with her parents and estranged from her brother and sister. It is the mystery of Rosemary’s relationship with her parents and how her brother, Lowell, and sister, Fern go missing that drives the story forward. When Rosemary’s narrative circles back to the beginning of the story, we learn that her “sister”, Fern, is a chimpanzee brought into the home to be raised as her “twin” for an experiment her scientist father was conducting in the seventies.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a wonderful coming of age novel that is interesting both in the style of the narrative and in the story, containing a powerful message. The title refers to the fact that, when placed beside humans, animals—particularly apes—are not that different. Growing up, Rosemary’s father’s lab assistants endlessly compare Fern’s progress with her own. While Fern reaches certain landmarks before Rosemary—such as walking and “talking” (really signing)—Rosemary’s growth soon outperforms Ferns with little fanfare and she grows jealous of Fern’s attention which leads to Fern’s removal from the family. In doing this, Rosemary asserts her alpha role in her family pack, not unlike how later, Fern becomes the alpha animal in her lab “family”. When Rosemary tells us the end of her story, we learn the reason for her brother’s disappearance. Everything, from Rosemary’s inability to fit in with her peers to her brother’s absence, her mother’s emotional distance, and her father’s depression traces back to Fern’s removal from the family and Rosemary spends the remainder of the book trying to set it right.
Fowler has penned a page-turner here. Her prose is artful and easy to read, something to which, as an author, I aspire. The narrator is so candid in her guilt, the story reads like a written confession, which is where the interest lies. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a book with social conscience, prompting us to think about the connection between people and animals and how, when we compare them side-by-side with ourselves, we are not so essentially different.
About the Author
Elise Abram, English teacher and former archaeologist, has been writing for as long as she can remember, but it wasn’t until she was asked to teach Writer’s Craft in 2001 that she began to write seriously. Her first novel, THE GUARDIAN was partially published as a Twitter novel a few summers back (and may be accessed at @RKLOGYprof). Nearly ten years after its inception Abram decided it was time to stop shopping around with traditional publication houses and publish PHASE SHIFT on her own.
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