We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, By Karen Joy Fowler
“The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once you’ve gone over that cliff.” Rosemary
The written word also reveals secrets so I will start this review by saying that I will do my best not to go over the cliff in order to allow anyone who reaches for this book – as the result of reading this post – the opportunity to experience it as the author intended. Whatever you do, don’t read the book flaps or the back cover. I read this unique novel on my kindle and for once, I feel I am the better for it. I downloaded it after reading a 2013 Great Book Picks (or something like that) and didn’t recall what it was about when I decided to begin reading it the other day.
This is a superb read – loaded with suspense, cleverly written, fascinating characters and compelling subject matter. It is full of beginnings. Read it through to the end (it won’t be hard to) and I can almost guarantee that you will be enthralled by the narrative and the narrator.
I immediately fell in love with the voice of Rosemary, Karen Joy Fowler’s narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the prologue of this story of families, academic scientific research, college towns, science, ethics and the animal rights movement. Rosemary immediately reveals that she was a “great talker” as a child and that her parents valued her “extravagant abundance” and “inexhaustible flow” of words; nonetheless, her mother’s tip to polite social behavior was to pick one thing to say (your favorite) when you think of two or three things to say. Her father advises her early on to begin in the middle of any story, especially given her propensity to use her words to prolong her encounters with anyone who will pay attention to her.
And so she begins to tell “the middle” of her story, ten years after her older brother disappeared and 17 years since her sister vanished. And we begin to learn about Rosemary, a college student in her fifth year at UC Davis with no degree on the horizon. She is arrested after throwing a glass of milk in the cafeteria for no discernible reason. And it is through the aftermath of her arrest, and the days that follow, that the reader learns about her unusual family, her struggles in Kindergarten (“kindergarten is all about learning which parts of you are welcome at school and which are not”), her journey away from talking to silence (“I’d come to silence hard”), and how a family will always struggle to be together even when staying together seems impossible.
And as the narrative unfolds, past sins and secrets are revealed and mysteries are deciphered. And Rosemary slowly begins to find herself in her search for her missing siblings. She ponders: “I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one spending my life making the same mistake over and over again or if that’s simply human. Do we all tend toward a single besetting sin?” And we begin to understand why Rosemary must look more carefully in “the mirror,” despite her rejection of her own reflection, made ironic as she lectures a self-important college guy on the “mirror” test and how “we’ve been using it to determine self-awareness” since Darwin.
I loved this story and its thoughtful presentation of animal research ethics. Pieces of ourselves can “go missing” for years, much like Rosemary’s siblings, and sometimes the only way to find them is to look hard in the mirror and truly see what is there. Because who in this life has never been completely beside themselves?
Ages: 14 and up. Some profanity.