I heard of this book through the TV Book Club on Facebook, and quickly judging it by its cover, without reading the description, was expecting some sort of romance/family saga, but what the book is actually about is quite a challenging read, as the story starts in the middle: Rose is a 22 year old college student at UC Davis, in her fifth year, with no firm thoughts of what to major in, however, she hides from her fellow students facts about her family. she doesn't tell them she has an older brother, Lovell, or an older sister, Fern. Both siblings appear to be missing from the family and as you progress through the book you learn that Rose's mother had a breakdown when she was five years old, she was sent to live with one set of grandparents for a while until she orchestrated an escape. When found, her father returned for her and she was taken to a new home, where her parents and brother had moved to, but there was no Fern. During the descriptive narrative you pick up that Rose's formative memories are sketchy on a lot of things around the time Fern is lost and her mother is ill, however this point definitely established the before and after of the family. After, Lovell is unhappy and constantly running away and Fern is no longer there and it is Fern that kept me reading on, as I really needed to know what happened to her.
This book is funny and endearing in parts but is not an easy read, I found the narrative difficult to get into but once I had read a few chapters and acclimated the story did hook me. There is much angst and heartbreak in this story, and a lot of information about psychological experiments and protocol, however, weeding my way through all this information, what kept me reading was Rose's quest to find out what happened to Fern and then her quest to find her.
A difficult and rewarding read, definitely one which touched my heart, this is definitely a book to spark much discussion.
on 30 October 2014
It's hard to review this book because the extraordinary revelation about 70 pages in is what makes the story unique, but to spoil this for a new reader would be to rid narrator Rosemary of her intention: to get the reader to understand how normal her odd life was to her, before they pigeon hole it as extraordinary.
I loved this book. The structure is ambitious and it could have fallen flat. But it is the making of the novel. It starts in the middle - flips back and forth, with Rosemary remembering and misremembering, reinterpreting events as shreds of information arrive over the decades, to help her make sense of her life and work out what responsibility she had for the events that resulted in her sister's abrupt severance from the family. It was brave of Fowler to pick Rosemary as her narrator, since Rosemary knows almost nothing. The same story told from the dynamic reaction of her brother Lowell might have created a thrillerish level of suspense. But what Fowler excels at is making the extraordinary normal - really digging in deep to show how it might feel to have lived such a powerfully, socially alienating different life.
While the story is gripping and heart-wrenching, strongest of all is the characterisation of Rosemary. She's hard to like. But that reaction pulls a reader up short. There's nothing unpleasant about Rosemary. nothing bad or cruel. She's just...odd. Fowler shows us how easily we withdraw from the truly 'other' people around us. Not the sketched-in different-but-endearing characters that crop up in novels with, say, notionally Asbergic narrators, but someone potentially neuro-typical whose grounding in life makes her fundamentally different from us in every way, except in a way that makes it easy to categorise her as other. We can't say Rosemary is feral or autistic - she functions within society absolutely fine. But we know she'd be hard work to spend time with. And that, for me, was a powerful, deftly handled social commentary on Fowler's part. As Rosemary's world becomes better known to us, some of her odder choices begin to make sense. Her involvement with the intensely annoying Harlowe relates to an early, deep and happy connection to similar behaviour in her sister, Fern.
I particularly loved the humanity of the unfolding story. No one is to blame, not the father, nor the mother, not Rosemary, not Fern. But the fallout from a single, well-intentioned but ill-thought out decision is immense and lasting. Lowell's tragic, half-told story glowers in the background of the uneasy stability that Rosemary finds towards the end of her narrative. So many novels are touted as truly examining the human condition (whatever that is) but this one does, with dark humour and scrupulous dedication to exploring how we become who we think we are.
I feel dizzied by the brilliance of this book and want to go off and explore all other writing by this author.
I really wanted to like this but, sadly, I just couldn't. That's my loss, probably, as it's had plenty of positive reviews but, for what it's worth, here are the three things I disliked most about 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves':
1) The central idea of the book (the relationship between Rosemary and her sister Fern) is brilliant but, frustratingly, it seldom gets to take centre stage. It's as though the novel has ADHD, and rather than getting fully to grips with the amazing sibling relationship at its core, it's instead constantly being distracted by what ought to be its minor themes (family politics, animal rights activism), such that it ends up completely losing focus.
2) The plotting feels tremendously contrived, in the sense that every event in the plot is very clearly taking place for a predetermined didactic reason: THIS takes place to make THIS point, and then THAT takes place to make THAT point. It's frankly a bit claustrophobic for the reader. I felt like I was having my hand held by the author, to make sure I joined all the numbers correctly on a dot-to-dot puzzle. I didn't feel like I was being given any imaginative space of my own at all.
3) Rosemary, the book's narrator, has possibly the most gratingly glib narrative voice I've ever encountered. It could be that this is an amazing feat of literary ventriloquism. Karen Joy Fowler (who is now in her mid-60s) has created a perfectly convincing (and perfectly irritating) narrator who was only in her early 20s circa 1996, when most of the book's action takes place, and whose smug, arch and condescending 'Dear Reader' asides punctuate the narrative with dismaying regularity. Or equally it could be that Karen Joy Fowler is just inherently a smug, glib and condescending writer. I'm prepared to give Ms Fowler the benefit of the doubt here, but even so it doesn't make her book any less irritating to read.
On balance, the central idea of the book is still just about interesting enough to make it worth reading, but in my view it's a novel that's far from being an unequivocal success, and frankly I'm really surprised it got anywhere near the Booker longlist.
on 13 October 2014
After reading the first few pages of this, I already disliked the main character/first-person narrator, who seemed painfully self-absorbed and hated the attention seeking drama student who is the other character introduced at this stage. The next few chapters go into dull detail about our narrator's family dynamic and painstakingly outline a tedious and uneventful Thanksgiving dinner. At this stage, it just felt like every other navel-gazing novel about a middle-class, mildly dysfunctional American family, and the narrator like every other over-privileged, whiny twenty-something character.
I was tempted to drop it there and then, but I stuck with it because a)surely all the good reviews and the Booker nomination meant it had to get better, b)occasionally the knowing, self-referential narrative voice caught my attention, and most importantly, c) from both the text and some of the reviews, I was getting the hint that there was something more to the plot - some sort of underlying family secret.
About a quarter of the way through the book, we find out what this secret is. As this isn't mentioned in the blurb and comes as a bit of a surprise, I suppose it should be described as a twist, and I suppose I shouldn't reveal it. But I found it very odd that the author and/or publishers and publicists had decided to treat it this was. For me, this revelation came so early and was such an integral part of the book that it really should have been in the blurb and all over the advertising material. It's sort of like if all descriptions of Twilight were careful to avoid mentioning that the love interest is a vampire in the hope that readers will be shocked when they find out (not that I like Twilight, I hasten to add, but it was the best parallel I could think of!).
It's actually quite difficult to say more about the book without giving away this plot detail. Let's just say this "twist" caught my attention and for a while, made me feel more interested in the book. The flashbacks to the narrator's childhood that linked to it were interesting and if there'd been more focus on those, I might have been better disposed towards the book. But then the narrative returned to the present, and despite the fact that we now have an explanation for some of the oddities of the narrator, I still found her as unlike-able and disinteresting as ever, and found most of the supporting characters to be even more irritating. Furthermore, there were suggestions that there was still one more secret childhood memory to be revealed, but there really wasn't. If the twist didn't quite qualify as a twist, then the final revelation, really, really didn't qualify as a revelation and it made for a huge anti-climax.
There were some meditations sprinkled throughout the book on what it means to be human and whether humans are really any different from other mammals and particularly from other primates. At times, these were interesting and got me thinking, but far too often, the book felt in danger of turning into a lecture on animal rights and the evils of animal testing. I was looking for a clever piece of fiction, not a polemic. Ironically, I think the message would have been far stronger if the plot had been allowed to speak for itself instead of characters being used as mouthpieces.
By the end, I just couldn't see the point of this book. I recently read We Were Liars, and while I didn't love that either, I felt that was a better portrayal of a damaged family and of the way families create their own mythology and can hide secrets. And if I wanted to learn about animal rights or human/animal psychology in detail, I'd read a non-fiction account, or at least a novel that dealt with the issue subtly. The only thing that really makes this book unique or at all interesting is the plot device I'm not meant to talk about, but despite a brief "wow moment", even that didn't bring the book alive for me.
on 31 August 2014
Karen Joy Fowler‘s book only really jumped out at me from the Amazon bestseller list because of the captivating cover, I’ll confess. But reading a story like this without knowing too much about the plot is a good idea, because this is a novel full of surprises and characters worth getting to know. I won’t spoil any of the major plot points, even the ones which come early on, so that you can get the same out of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as I did.
I’ll just say that this is a great book for anyone who enjoys the vagaries of a really heartfelt first-person narrative, and anyone with any interest in psychology and human nature. It’s not a dry, scientific dissection of the latter, but a naive (and latterly a heart-wrenchingly wise) examination of family, memory and what it truly means to be human.
The story is told by Rosemary Cooke, a precocious child who somehow turned from a happy chatterbox into a strangely silent and isolated college student. She gives you the window into her past that she denies her friends, teasing with early suggestions that something big has shaped the way she, and her entire family, is. Revelations spring up in every chapter, feeling like much-desired pieces to a beautiful puzzle rather than random moments of inspiration on the writer’s part. It is as if Fowler inhabited the character’s thoughts and her history while she wrote this. Rosie is by turns hilarious, painfully honest, observant, and then perhaps even betrayed by her own memory and nature. Any way that you view her as a protagonist, you root for her and read her disjointed memories with a determination not just to get to the root of the story, but to enjoy her whimsical telling of it.
It begins in the middle, ends more than once and begins again. It’s a real masterpiece of construction and style, and the plot is one you won’t forget in a hurry. I’d recommend it to anyone.
I have just finished reading this novel and am completely bowled over by it, and also still feeling very emotional. At the end I cried.
This is not a a story of a messed up family . It is a story of an unusual family.
At first I found the main character Rosemary very odd and the novel felt odd. Rosemary is telling the story and she is starting in the middle. We don't yet know why anyone is the way they are.
Once the story reaches a certain place and I had a context for Rosemary and her siblings then I realised I was reading a remarkable novel.
The book has a dry humour that totally appeals to me. I began to feel at home with this imaginary family and wanted them to be real people who are living somewhere.
There is also a lot of information packed in here which I am taking as reliable because of the author's references to other pieces of writing, and other books at the end of this book.
I do not want to even hint at the twist, apparently already given away in a review in The Times. So I can only speak vaguely.
It is a story about an unusual family, their relationships and their memories of events. Two people hardly ever see the same event in the same way. In a family an event can have several explanations.
The novel is American. Some of the references are too American for me to know, but that doesn't matter.
Throughout the book are scattered words I don't know, have never heard of. I suppose I should look them up in my dictionary but I can't be bothered and I don't think I am losing out by not bothering. If the meaning is needed in the novel it gets explained.
I think this book can be life changing because it gives the reader a lot to think about, if they want to.
I love love it. Am glad I read it and totally recommend it. I think this is a book about the way we live on the this planet and the way we effect it. There is a serious side to this writing, clearly the author has serious concerns and I feel in agreement with her.
I had the twist in the story spoiled for me by a review in The Times, but I'm glad about it, because in spite of the other glowing reviews, books that are simply about people's messed-up families don't normally appeal to me. This one, though, has a unique concept at its heart that elevates it above many of the books in its genre. It's especially recommended for animal-lovers.
Fowler's writing, apart from a few instances of purple prose, is highly immersive, and the humour is dry and well-observed. Once you know exactly why Rosemary Cooke's family is so unusual, the book's emotional heft comes from discovering in piece-meal fashion the inevitable yet still hard-hitting revelations of the past. This is a story that simply won't let you go, and will linger long after you've finished it. It poses hard questions and acknowledges that there may never be 'right' answers to them, and it thoughtfully explores the consequences of a real-life scientific experiment that was conducted in several families in the US in the twentieth century (if this doesn't make much sense, sorry - I don't want to give the twist away!)
Beautifully written, and bound to make your eyes prick with tears by the end. I especially appreciated the bitter-sweet ending. Life is rarely otherwise.
on 12 February 2016
I have been guilty of making assumptions about Karen Joy Fowler ever since I started and then quickly gave up on The Jane Austen Book Club. A few years later I also watched the film adaptation with a few friends and again was rather underwhelmed (it is the only time I have ever watched anything with Emily Blunt and disliked her). Still, when I heard that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves had been longlisted for the Booker Prize, I started to take notice. In this latest novel, Fowler manages to pull off the most original and thought-provoking family drama that I can ever remember reading. It both challenges our humanity and reveals what it is that truly binds us together. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, this novel is incredibly emotional and obviously something about which the author personally feels very passionately. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves challenges the reader to themselves make a stand, to decide where their loyalties will lie in situations where the facts are not always black and white.
This will not be a long review because I have really been making an effort to avoid spoilers. I read this novel knowing nothing about it other than that it had been highly praised. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a novel of dark twists and turns but there are several points of jolting clarity as we realise that our guide through this story, the lead character Rosemary Cooke, has been keeping secrets. Rosemary is telling us about her family and she wants us to have a fair understanding. She doesn’t want us to think that they were crazy so she can’t tell us all of it at once. Rosemary is not so much an unreliable narrator as a loyal one and her loyalty is not to the reader, or indeed to the human race in general.
As a child, Rosemary explains, she was ‘a great talker’, something that would surprise those who know her now. As her father put her to bed and tried to leave the room, the young Rosemary would try to keep his attention by calling out, “I have something to say!” Keen to save time, he would advise her to “Start in the middle!” Many years later, Rosemary decides to do exactly the same with us. We leap straight in at 1996, which is ten years after Rosemary last saw her brother Lowell and seventeen since the disappearance of her sister Fern. The twenty-two year old Rosemary is indifferently studying at the University of California in Davis, a college she has chosen for reasons which are personal rather than academic. Rosemary has a hard time making friends, she struggles to understand the ways of others and when chaotic, riotous Harlow charges into her life, Rosemary is powerless to resist her ‘friendship’.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is quite manipulative of its readers – we are being guided on what to think, how to respond to the characters, we are not trusted to make our own conclusions. Rosemary offers the testimony of other family members alongside our own but remains resolutely bland over who is most reliable. Is her brother Lowell the courageous crusader for justice or was he only ever a lonely lunatic on the run from responsibility? Rosemary remembers Fern as her almost-twin, her inseparable second-self and Lowell remembers Rosemary as having betrayed Fern and for never ever having been able to keep her mouth shut. It can be no coincidence that Rosemary’s name signifies remembrance.
Rosemary’s voice often veers into that of the author, particularly when listing various psychological studies and the facts about vivisection. Still, although these passages can come across as didactic, I was still caught by Rosemary’s voice – it reminded me very strongly of an article I once read many years ago which was written by someone who had had a feral upbringing. The anonymous writer had the same slightly ‘other’ quality and a similar sense of disenfranchisement with the human race. Rosemary was not brought up to understand human body language; she was more test subject than daughter, every word from her childhood motor-mouth was recorded by her father’s fascinated grad students and so we meet an adult woman who has the detached eye of the objective observer. When she asks her roommate Todd if they are friends, he is hurt and exclaims that they have been for years and I felt a sense of relief for Rosemary, that she had someone in her life who was paying heed.
I am not quite sure how far We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves fits in the Man Booker prize list. It raises some fascinating questions but it still lacks a certain subtlety. I was haunted just the same though by Lowell’s brutal words that on making people look at the ‘fathomless misery’ on which the world runs, ‘you’re the one they hate, because you’re the one that made them look’. Still, the overwhelming message that I took from this novel was one of grace. Rosemary gave grace to her parents for their misguided attempts to give her a fascinating life and there is a real serenity to how when her dying father dreamt that he was hiking and asked if Rosemary would carry his imaginary haversack, she was able to take it from him. It was grace that bound Rosemary and her mother back to Fern, it was grace and it was love. As Rosemary said, ‘there were moments to complain about your parents and moments to be grateful and it was a shame to to mix those moments up’ – no matter how far Rosemary had gone to forget, she loved her sister Fern, she had carried her with her every day and the time comes when that is all that is important.
It is a strange thing that a book which has so many thoughts on Darwinism and science should make think so much about faith. In my early weeks at university, the University Debating Society considered the motion ‘This House Prefers Darwin to God’. At the end of the debate, one of the floor speakers stood up and said that she was ‘not happy’ at the idea of being descended from a ‘chimp’ and that all those like her should vote for God. The next floor speaker stood up aghast, pointing out that there were many things in life that we may not be happy about (she called up examples such at the fact that she had a 9am class that year, that George W Bush was the current president and that her sports team was losing) but that did not make them any less true. Things may not turn out the way we want, but we cannot ignore them, we cannot reshape events. As Rosemary said, ‘the way people respond to us has less to do with what we’ve done and more to do with who they are’ – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves had at its core a message of surprising acceptance. The time comes to let things go, to set those we love free from their debts and concentrate on that which keeps us close. More than anything, this was a fractured family finding peace. Mistakes were made but forgiveness could be found; the real-life researcher Roger Fouts said that ‘in the phrase human being, the word being is much more important than the word human’.
I wonder how much sense this review will make to those who have not read the book. I would not wish to deprive any reader of those moments of ‘oh’ surprise that I had. But if you really need to know, if you are quite so very curious … look closely at the cover. Fern is right there before our eyes.
on 30 September 2014
After reading the reviews on Amazon I thought I'd give this book a go, that and the fact it was high in the best seller list. I have to say I was very disappointed, I was waiting for the twist which was mentioned and felt deflated. I found it long winded and self indulgent, it didn't really go anywhere. Thank goodness it was only 99p.
on 6 December 2014
At first this seemed like a run-of-the-mill family saga with dysfunctional relationships and mysteriously absent siblings. Then we are given a startling piece of information that reverses all our perceptions but at the same time makes sense of all that has gone before.
I can see why some reviewers think that it's permissible to give away the twist, but I think they're wrong. Although it comes at only a quarter of the way through, it's necessary to experience the shock to appreciate the enormity of what has happened. There are two major themes in this book. Rosemary, the narrator is vociferous in her condemnation of the injustice suffered by both her siblings. She is, however, less aware of what has been done to her and how children are affected by the decisions adults make. I think this is why the author has portrayed her as glib and seemingly shallow, at least in the earlier chapters.
I really loved this book. It is profound, gripping and unlike anything I've read before. If you're going to read it, be prepared to suspend disbelief sometimes, and make every effort to avoid spoilers.