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Reviewsday: 'We are All Completely Beside Ourselves' explores family bonds

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves," by Karen Joy Fowler, will alternately entertain, enlighten, enrage, and move readers. Fowler’s prose is witty and modern and the book’s narrator, Rosemary Cooke, rises above most first-person accounts by being painfully honest without painting herself as heroic or admirable or self-destructively attractive. In fact, Fowler spins out the story in pieces through Rosemary’s narrative, so that it’s nearly a third of the way into the book before the reader learns that one of the main characters, Rosemary’s older sister, is in fact, a chimp. And this is critical to the book.

Rosemary’s father is a scientist, who, along with a troop of graduate students, studies communication between chimpanzees and humans. Specifically, they study Rosemary and her “sister,” Fern, who are being raised together in the Cooke household. Rosemary found this unexceptional and in fact, felt jealous of Fern’s abilities like any warring siblings would. But they were also exceptionally close, and Rosemary alone felt she could translate Fern’s feelings. Eventually, Fern is sent “to a farm” to live which is the family’s turning point. Lowell, Rosemary’s human brother, disappears, later to turn up wanted by the FBI and Rosemary struggles with feelings of guilt well into her adulthood about why Fern was sent away. The story starts “in the middle” as Rosemary narrates, with Rosemary in college and Fern gone since Rosemary was five years old.

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" gives us relatable and mostly likable characters along with an entertaining plot with occasionally witty if not snarky narration. Her story turns a bit heavy-handed from time to time when introducing details of animal testing and activism. Elizabeth Strout took on a similarly emotionally charged topic in "The Burgess Boys," but guided the reader to draw their own conclusions through introducing characters with different perspectives. Fowler, on the other hand, provides the reader with text that could be coming from activist brochures—not to suggest that it isn’t true or worthy of outrage, but she doesn’t give the reader the opportunity to arrive at that conclusion themselves.

"We Are all Completely Beside Ourselves" was published by Putnam in 2013.