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.
on 14 March 2015
I really enjoyed the beginning of this book but struggled after the revelation about the main characters sister. The first couple of chapters were incredibly well written, with many pithy and humorous comments. Unfortunately this just heightened my expectations which were, ultimately, incredibly let down.
The premise that even the most unusual of family set ups are normal to those living in them is an intriguing one but, sadly, the story seemed to slide more and more into a political statement on animal rights. And if there's one thing that irritates me in a novel it's being preached at. I'm a believer that all novels can teach us something about ourselves and the world we live in but there are far better ways of a writer achieving this. I don't need to be spoon-fed.
I did continue reading and finish the book but found its completion unsatisfying and wish I had moved on sooner.
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 23 April 2015
I wanted to like this book, I really did! But it is so badly written with a 'shocking twist' that is anything but. Not to give it away, but I read the end in the hopes that something more would reveal itself but it was as flat as a pancake. The characters are not interesting, even Fern is dull! Rosemary is awful, a blank screen. Not recommended...
on 6 May 2016
I only heard about this book through the Man Booker Prize but I was completely pulled in by the cover and blurb and thus decided that I wanted to read it. This is a decision I’m glad I made as I really enjoyed this book. While it took me a long time to get through and was a little literary for me in some places, I found myself hooked to the story, wanting to know so much more. It was a truly fascinating read that took me by surprise in the best possible way.
What made this book so interesting and different was that it didn’t have a normal linear structure. The story starts at the end, goes to the middle then the beginning and back to the end. While that sounds confusing, in this book, it really worked. I loved how this story was told. It was captivating and was beautifully unpredictable. Of course, what made this work so well was the amazing plot. There was so much going on in this story. It was moving, and just so different from anything I’ve read. It’s hard to explain without ruining things, so really you should just read it.
It took me a bit of a while to warm to the main protagonist in this story. To me she seemed a bit odd at the start but I quickly changed my mind and found Rosemary to be an interesting and lovely character that I wanted to read more about. She was so strong, caring and loving but also just a little bit lost. It was perfect for this book. Karen Joy Fowler wroter her incredibly well, as well as all the other side characters. It is hard not to feel emotionally attached to many of the characters in this book as they are all so lovable!
This is a book that was completely different to what I expected, which in turn just made it that much more enjoyable to read. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a heart-warming, emotional rollarcoaster of a book that will definitely make you think. It is a story of love, finding yourself, and how we percieve the world. It is a truly marvellous novel that I found compelling and would recommend in a heartbeat. It may have had a few flaws but these were nothing in light of all the good pouring out of the pages. Read it.
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 2 January 2015
Karen Joy Fowler's novel ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ focuses on a family that has been ripped apart by the loss of a daughter and a sister.
Rosemary was only five years old when Fern disappeared from her life. Years later, her brother leaves home without a backward glance. From a family of five, they are suddenly just three. The family home, once thriving and full of life, is now dominated by the things that they don’t talk about.
Even though she's never mentioned, Fern has affected every moment of Rosemary's life, past and present. They grew up together, experienced everything together and even had their own language. Many years later at college, Rosemary is doing everything she can to fade into the background. But sooner or later, she has to face the truth of what really happened to Fern.
To say any more about the plot would ruin it for future readers, but there's a massive plot twist about half way through that I didn't see coming - probably because I'd managed to avoid reading any revealing reviews beforehand!
That said, this was a really great read. It raised some really interesting questions around scientific research and morality that I was still thinking about a long time after I turned the last page.
Rosemary's sister was taken away from her when she was a just a child, and a lot of the issues she struggles to deal with later in life are caused by the fact that she was too young to fully understand what was happening around her. As an adult, she has to re-examine everything that she thinks she knows and try to see things from a new perspective.
Guilt and responsibility are constant themes, and the novel really drives home how personal choices made by parents can have long lasting and devastating effects on their children and the people around them.
It's described as a comic novel, and in some places it's brilliantly witty and self-deprecating. However, in others it's incredibly touching, moving and sad.
It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, and in my opinion, it’s well worth the hype.
on 27 October 2014
'Best novel of the decade so far' - says the back cover. Well, I did enjoy reading it but certainly would not call it best of decade.
The story is fictional yet it touches upon real phenomena and experiments. The author skilfully intertwined her own life experience and background with an imaginary portrayal of a family. Not just 'a' family though; an un-ordinary family (which does not mean extraordinary). The end result seems genuine and quite convincing and yet, somehow, falling short of 'properly explored'.
It is to be a story of sibling love and rivalry but I am not sure I would describe it this way myself. To me it seems to be a story of coming to terms with oneself, Rosemary's story. And true enough, coming to terms with oneself requires going back and dealing with the past, in which her two siblings, Lowell and Fern, were a prominent future and a clear cause of the shape and form of Rosemary's future self. Rosemary's story is not an ordinary one; her past and upbringing is not the past many of us can associate with, which makes in interesting, different, insightful (although could be more) and engaging. And yet, as much as I enjoyed the psychological wittiness and observation, it stays in places shallow, under-explored, and ... an easy-read, ultimately, where it could have been more powerful. There is no climax in that book.
There is also some background discussion about animal experimenting in the course of the last century up to current days. Some see the novel as a propaganda manifesto but I would not necessarily agree. It's true that towards the end of the book it becomes more prominent but still, it's to be read in the context of the story. Besides, anyone who reads around will be familiar with the issues discussed so the point is not to convert anyone. It's, in my view, a scene-setting, context-setting discussion.
And still, cannot deny Ms Fowler talent and style. I liked the twisted timeline (but that's just a personal preference for non-linear story telling), which was fairly easy to follow and gave the story an interesting dynamic. She'll stay on my worth-to-read shelf.
A book definitely out of the mainstream that starts out as a conventional rite of passage told by an adult looking back on her childhood in the typical American family, with siblings, parents and grandparents. One is jerked out of this narrative by the 'twist' which has been highlighted as the main feature of the book, and which cannot be revealed as it acts as a significant spoiler. From this point onwards, the story proceeds in a more and more disturbing fashion, with the loss of siblings and the fragmentation of the family.
The author has created several memorable characters including the narrator, Rosemary, who is both endearing and irritating at the same time; her brother Lowell, idealistic and very driven; her self- introduced friend Harlow, certainly flaky, but evoking our sympathy; her mother, who struggles with depression; and her father, whose truly unpleasant character is revealed very early in the story.
I found this very disturbing book, and not just in its references to the way human beings have treated our primate brothers and sisters as merely experimental animals. It says much about modern family relationships, and the pressures that young people face in a world that is becoming more and more threatening. Karen Joy Fowler writes fluently, creating a fairytale world of the very young in counterpoint to the harsh reality of adolescent/early adult life.