WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler
“As part of leaving Bloomington for college and my brand new start, Iâ€™d made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern. Back in those college days I never spoke of her and seldom thought of her. If anyone asked about my family, I admitted to two parents, still married, and one brother, older, who traveled a lot. Not mentioning Fern was first a decision, and later a habit, hard and painful even now to break. Even now, way off in 2012, I canâ€™t abide someone else bringing her up. I have to ease into it. I have to choose my moment.”
Review by Jill I. Shultman Â (FEB 15, 2013)
The most absorbing books I read have a vital lesson at their core: they teach me what it means to be human. Karen Joy Fowlerâ€™s latest book tackles this crucial theme and by doing so, captured my heart and reduced me to tears.
There is no getting around that this is an agenda book. Ms. Fowlerâ€™s purpose is to show usâ€”through fictionâ€”that the most complicated animal â€“ the human animal can be disastrous to the rest of the animal kingdom through sheer arrogance.
Typically, I avoid authorial intrusion like the plague. But this book was so irresistibly readable, so original, and so psychologically nuanced that I couldnâ€™t help but turn the pages compulsively.
Rosemary Cooke, our narrator, is the daughter of a family of scientists. It takes her 77 pages to reveal a central truism of her life (which, inexplicably, is revealed by the publisher on every book blurb about this novel): she spent the first eighteen years of her life defined by the fact that she was raised as â€śtwinsâ€ť with a chimpanzee named Fern.
â€śI tell you Fern is a chimp and already, you arenâ€™t thinking of her as my sister,â€ť Ms. Fowler writes. â€śYouâ€™re thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet.â€ť But that just wasnâ€™t so. Rosemary astutely realized that her father was not really studying whether chimps could communicate as humans. Rather, he is asking, â€ścan Rosemary learn to speak to chimpanzees.â€ť
Fern is sent away when Rosemary turns five, for reasons that remain obscure through most of the book. But her absence affects Rosemary the way the sudden disappearance of a sister would. By the time she goes to kindergarten, her mother must work with her to stand up straight, not put her fingers into anyoneâ€™s mouth or hair, not jump on tables and desks when she is playing, not bite anyone.
Her whole life is impacted by the â€śexperimentâ€ť of being raised with her sister Fern. â€śWhat a scam I pulled off!â€ť Rosemary reflects. â€śWhat a triumph. Apparently, Iâ€™d finally erased all those little cues, those maters of personal space, focal distance, facial expression, vocabulary. Apparently all you needed to be considered normal was no evidence to the contrary.â€ť
I believed in the connection between Rosemary and Fern. This emotionally devastating book â€“ which folds back on itself to reveal more and more of the story through false and real memories â€“ confirms what I have long believed: that the rest of the animal kingdom has much to teach us in being human.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 316 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Plume (February 25, 2014)|
|REVIEWER:||Jill I Shultman|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Karen Joy Fowler|
|EXTRAS:||Q & A and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
And other chimpanzee books:
- Artificial Things: Stories (1986)
- Sarah Canary (1991)
- The Sweetheart Season (1996)
- Black Glass: Short Fiction (1998)
- Sister Noon (2001)
- The Jane Austen Book Club (2004)
- Wit’s End (2008)
- What I Didn’t See: Stories (2010)
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (May 2013)
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