We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Title: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Narrator: Orlagh Cassidy
Published: May 2013
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks
Length: 7 CDs
Procurement: public library
Relationship to Author: None

I’m not sure how most people ingest audiobooks, but I take mine in the car. Fowler’s 7 CDs went with me to Virginia, and so following/paying attention to new directions surely affected the way I heard the story.

The beginning of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves struck me as confusing. The narrator, Rosemary, starts her story by telling listeners how to tell a story. The best way? Start in the middle. This confused me at first because I missed the age of this narrator who was telling me how to tell stories; I was under the impression she was a little girl. But really (I think), she is an adult talking about being a little girl who would get tucked in at night by her father.

The plot jumps to Rose in college. A young woman, Harlow, is fighting with her boyfriend in the middle of the school cafeteria. In a strange moment in which Harlow and Rose connect, both women are arrested for causing a disturbance, because after Rose watches Harlow throw and destroy glassware, Rose catches herself–almost without thinking–smashing her own milk glass to the ground. It kind of made me wonder what was going on. Is Rose so boring or so easily influenced that she, too, must make a scene? It took my quite a while to get into the story, and I was worried this was going to be one of those books in which the narrator is struggling so greatly with life that she does unusual things to get attention. This was not the case. However, I suddenly remembered that the synopsis of the book included a chimp. Where the hell was my chimp? I thought about abandoning the novel.

Finally, Rose cuts back to the beginning of the story, and I couldn’t help but think the middle was a terrible place to start. Rose feels a great gap in her life left by her sister Fern, who is inexplicably gone. While listening, I started to get the feeling that Fern and Rose were twins and Fern had died. But no, Rose corrects us, Fern is not dead. She was taken away. Because Fern is a chimp. Psychology study: if a chimp were raised in a family just like a human, could it learn to communicate with the family? Rose’s father worked for a college when she was a girl, so along with Fern as an object of study/family member came several grad students and grant money. When the school no longer wanted to pay for the experiment, Fern was shipped away. I won’t say where, and I won’t say what that is like for her.

It is here that I understood why this story had to start in the middle. We’re not told that Fern is a chimp until we’ve fully accepted her as a sister, a person, an important being, and Rose makes sure to remind us of that very fact. The author has essentially made sure that we felt one way about Fern and then changed the whole scenario. Instead of two little girls jumping on their father’s desk and causing toddler chaos, we have a toddler mimicking what she believes is her actual sister…who a chimp in a dress. We’re suddenly worried about little Rose’s safety, the ethics of the experiment, the grad student who is bitten. There is also the concern for Rose’s brother, Lowell. Six years older, Lowell starts to disappear after Fern is taken away, and one day he vanishes completely only to reappear later as a man wanted by the FBI for being part of a domestic terrorist group that focuses on the release of animals in labs.

As an adult, Rose still mimics the behaviors of her long-gone sister (like when she copied the wild Harlow throwing dishes), and it’s highly interesting to read the effects of context on development. Readers will surely be forced to think about the context in which they were raised and to consider the effects in their current lives. For Rose, Fern is a mystery of the past, one she doesn’t talk about, but suddenly, chimps appear everywhere in Rose’s college classes, even the most unsuspecting, and she can’t help but think of Fern, who was ripped away from Rose and Lowell. Even the parents suffer the loss of their “daughter.” Or is it just daughter? Fowler dares us to ask what makes a family member, who shapes our growth and development, and in what ways we contribute to animal cruelty that exists, especially in labs. She also asks us to consider the way a story is told, and how the unfolding of that story changes the listener’s response to it.

The ending of the story dragged. I had that weird feeling, like when I was watching the third installment of The Lord of the Rings. There were so many natural places to end, but the story went on, and then a bit more and a bit more. However, to brave the beginning and ride out the waves at the end are worth the beautiful sea in the middle.

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