We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke, the narrator, begins her autobiography in the middle: a seemingly bizarre incident where an unknown woman becomes violent in the middle of a cafe after her boyfriend breaks up with her and Rosemary joins in by climbing on the table and dropping her glass of milk. The charges against Rosemary are dropped after a phone call to her father, who extracts a promise from Rosemary that nothing like this will ever occur again and that she will discuss the incident when she arrives home for Thanksgiving.

Yet the adults in the Cooke family do not discuss problems affecting the children — not Rosemary’s arrest, not Rosemary’s brother who is a fugitive wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism, and certainly not Rosemary’s sister who disappeared one day without trace or explanation. The loss of their sister affects Rosemary and her brother in different ways and at different stages in their lives. For Lowell, the loss immediately changes the course of his life; for Rosemary, the loss is only examined after her arrest.

Fowler has the distinction of being one of the first American authors nominated for the Booker Prize with this novel. It is not hard to draw parallels between her novel and her upbringing based on GoodReads’ brief autobiographical sketch — born in Bloomington, Indiana to a father who studied animal behavior, particularly learning, and eventually became a student at University of California at Davis.

The link to animal behavior is revealed about a third of the way into the book, although readers familiar with the narrator of Franz Kafka’s Report for an Academy will probably pick up on it earlier. (I have not read any of Kafka’s work, but this particular book was discussed at length in a history course I took in college.) The cover of the novel also gives this particular point away, but I will caution that the rest of my review contains spoilers.

As the novel moves from the middle of Rosemary’s story to the beginning, it is slowly explained that Rosemary and her sister, Fern, were included in an experiment designed to test the learning abilities of humans and chimpanzees. Roughly the same age, Rosemary is raised alongside a chimp named Fern (yes, that Fern) whilst her father and his team of graduate student document their behavior and cognitive abilities. As Rosemary reaches the age where she should be entering kindergarten, however, a single event — a single like — makes it apparent that the research project can no longer continue and Fern is removed from the Cooke family.

This is not the first novel I had read featuring chimpanzees and addressing the ethics of performing research tests on the animal, even something seemingly as harmless as sign language proficiency. In that regard, I think the novel failed to foster the same emotional connection between the reader and the topic at hand.

Fowler’s novel certainly provides new insight — I was particularly struck by the statement that chimps will skip any unnecessary steps to get food out a puzzle box after a demonstration while human children will copy each step regardless of its necessity — but I felt the family dynamics were not as developed as they could have been.

I understand that Rosemary’s family members were largely removed from her life and that her memory of events as a small child are supposed to be unreliable, but she seemed unable to connect with or understand their emotions, which hinder the plot given that she is a narrator. Harlow, the woman who freaked out in the cafe, and Rosemary’s landload, Ezra, were given far too much importance for a novel supposedly focused on family.

There is a clear agenda behind the novel; one that seems to echo those taken in other novels I have read on the topic. I would not say it challenged my perceptions or opinions the way other books have, but the decision to address research on the ability of chimps to learn languages and human behaviors through the close bond of a human child raised alongside a chimpanzee was an interesting one, although it was not as executed as well as I had hoped.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Fowler, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013. Print. 310 pgs. ISBN: 9780399162091. Source: Library.
Book Cover © G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Retrieved: December 28, 2014.
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3 thoughts on “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

  1. Good review. I thought this book should have one the Man Booker. Not just, because it was such an original subject but also because the narrator was highly engaging. Not everybody’s cup of tea though I suppose! Happy New Year!

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    1. I’ve only read this one and Flanagan’s novel, but I would have picked this one over Flanagan’s in a heart beat. Both have original subjects and unique narrators. This one was just more engaging to me. Happy New Year to you, too, Nicola!

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