Thursday, July 10, 2014

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler

I haven't listened to an audiobook in awhile, but I decided to download We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to listen to while I did my pregnancy walks. Fowler's novel was another book that I added to my "to read" list a long time ago but had long forgotten what it was about by the time I actually got it.

So, this total lack of awareness contributed to two large surprises (I don't think these are spoilers if you have any idea what you're reading):
1. When Rosemary spends the first part of the novel talking obliquely about her disappeared sister Fern, I didn't realize Fern was a chimpanzee until Rosemary "drops" the bombshell (rather coyly, she acknowledges).
2. I also didn't realize the book was fiction--not a memoir--until I finished the audiobook and it suddenly occurred to me that the author name I'd been seeing--Fowler--didn't match the name of the narrator.

So, through my own fault, I was rather hoodwinked the whole time. I don't know that being unaware hindered my enjoyment, though I might have been able to appreciate some of the literary structures more if I'd known it was a novel.

For those who are in the unawares like me, a brief description: Beside Ourselves is Rosemary's account of her family. The daughter of a psychologist father, she was raised alongside the baby chimpanzee Fern for the first five years of their lives as part of a social experiment. When both Rosemary and Fern were five, Fern was suddenly taken away for unknown (to Rosemary) reasons. Rosemary's brother, Lowell, left the family not long after in search of Fern and has been on the lam as an animal rights activist ever since. The story is not told chronologically or in long narrative sections. Instead, most of the telling takes place when Rosemary is in college, having avoided the topic of her sister for many years.

As Rosemary acknowledges, though Fern and Lowell are the more interesting characters, the novel stays mostly with Rosemary, and everything is told through her point of view. It's somewhat surprising that we spend much more time on Rosemary's college adventures with the crazy Harlow than on her childhood interactions with her chimpanzee sister, but, again, the book's not really about chimpanzees. It's about one woman who's avoided confronting what happened to her family for years, yet she's also deeply troubled by her missing sister.

The lack of traditional structure can make the book a bit jumbled, and you never get as many answers or details as you like. Nonetheless, it's an interesting read so long as you don't mind exploring the human more than the chimp.

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