292 of 316 people found the following review helpful
I was sick on Mother's Day this year. So I stayed in bed... with this book. I read for 8 straight hours and had to make myself stop before my eyes exploded. I finished it the very next day. Now, I'm in book mourning. You know that feeling, when you finish an amazing novel and are certain no other book can ever be so good as the one you just closed the cover on? That's where I am.
Fowler breaks all of the rules in this book. And she does so beautifully. It takes a true master of the craft to manipulate language and story as she has done. She manages to weave all sorts of scientific information into the narrative without me ever feeling I somehow landed in a text book.
Rosemary is immediately likable. I could relate to her, despite growing up without a chimp-sister. Her need to hide who she is rings true for so many people. She didn't sugarcoat her brother, either. Lowell is painted as the loyal loving brother he was, but also clearly angry and unstable.
Possibly my favorite aspect of this novel: Memory. Rose is honest about her memories and her uncertainty of their truth. The way her parents remember her childhood and the way she remembers it are world's apart, but both are correct.
There are longer more in-depth reviews posted, and I am sure they did a beautiful job of dissecting and recommending this novel. I am still in a place of book euphoria. All I can really say is, this story is amazing. Order your copy right now.
99 of 104 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2013
"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" is one of the most unusual, engaging and genuinely moving novels that has come around in a long, long time. Think "Shipping News" meets "Poisonwood Bible," and shaded with Karen Joy Fowler's unique voice and talent, and you have an idea of the literate and storytelling power of this book.
There's an inherent dilemma in talking about Fowler's new novel: it's built around a secret. Or, more accurately, a reveal. And though knowing the twist in advance doesn't diminish the story, it won't be disclosed here: no spoiler alert.
On the surface, the novel is about the Cookes of Bloomington, Indiana (where Fowler spent the first 11 years of her life). This unconventional, dysfunctional family consists of a pedantic psychologist father who specializes in animal behavior, an emotionally fragile mother and three children: Lowell, Rosemary and Fern.
One daughter mysteriously vanishes, the other changes from a prodigiously talkative child to a silent adult; the brother runs away. And beneath the basic plotline lies a story as fantastic, terrible and beautiful as any Grimm's fairy tale.
Reading Fowler's novel is like looking at a photo album as someone else turns the pages, back and forth and often several at a time. The all-too-human Cooke family comes into focus through this fluid, time-tripping technique, unearthing memories and mysteries along the way. Jealousy glitters as a recurring theme, along with fairness, unconditional love, animal rights and the power of language.
Rosemary, the relentlessly direct voice of the novel, explains up front that she's starting her story in the middle: it's 1996, and she's a 22-year-old student at the University of California, Davis. Her brother, who disappeared 11 years earlier, is an animal rights activist on the run from the FBI. She hasn't seen her sister Fern in 17 years.
We time-shift backwards, witnessing the three siblings' exceptional connection prior to the unraveling of their childhood, then skip decades ahead to solve the sad puzzle of Fern's disappearance. Throughout the book, Fowler's brilliant wordcraft intertwines tragedy and levity in a masterful crazy quilt of innocence, loss, renewal and bittersweet hope.
33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES
For me, this book started out gang busters. Good writing, excellent plot, strong characters, a little mystique to add much thought and pondering to the story. Then, for me, the book started to slow, rolling to an almost stand still, yet my longing and desire was still there to enjoy.
Karen Joy Fowler is a fantastic writer. She can take a simple subject -- such as the beginning of a new weather season -- and turn the description into a thing of beauty. Her ideas are pure and unique. Her wit is razor sharp and she writes with enjoyment and merriment. However -- for me -- this book just didn't take off. An example of Fowler's awesome writing ability -- "Autumn came suddenly that year, like a door opening. One morning I was bicycling to class when a large flock of Canada geese passed overhead. I couldn't see them, or much of anything else, but I heard the jazzy honking above me. There was a tule fog off the fields and I was wrapped inside it, pedaling through clouds." Such talent, such a way with words.
We meet the Cooke family, consisting of mom and dad, brother Lowell, and sisters Rosemary and Fern. Something tragic has happened to the Cooke clan and Rosemary sets out to tell us the entire story. However she starts in the middle of their history and moves backwards to the beginning. This reader did not find it confusing, it was a different and wonderful way to tell the tale.
Something so drastic has happened that the Cooke clan has literally dissolved and is pretty much destroyed. Rosemary has memories of her childhood and also has many blanks of her childhood. Her brother is a wanted man and her sister has disappeared off the face of the earth. Rosemary tries to fill in the blanks, tries to remember her past, wondering about Fern and what really happened to her when they were little girls. What happened to Fern? Did Rosemary play a part in Fern's going missing? Why can't the entire Cooke family get over this event and move on with their lives? These are but a few of the questions constantly rolling through Rosemary's savaged emotional being.
And in her search for the truth, Rosemary calls up the past and tries to find answers to help her get through the remainder of her life and bring some peace to herself.
This book is full of emotions and at times the writing turned preachy and somewhat boring regarding certain subjects. At times I felt as if I was reading a text book and not a novel. Like stated, I tried to like this book, but it just wasn't one for me. From looking at the ratings, I am certainly in the minority here. Take a chance and read this book. Perhaps you will enjoy it more than I did.
93 of 112 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2013
When we first meet Rosemary, the protagonist of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, she's in college, and she tells us that she's beginning her story in the middle. As she takes us back in time, we meet the other members of the Cooke family: Rosemary's scientist parents, her brother Lowell, and her sister, Fern. Both of her siblings are gone from her life now, but she doesn't yet tell us why. We also get the sense that there's something different and special about Fern -- but again, Rosemary doesn't tell us what it is right away.
What follows is a series of Rosemary's memories of her childhood as she recalls the nontraditional way in which she grew up. Events that took place in her childhood have long-lasting effects for her entire family, and there are clearly wounds that still haven't healed. The novel is told in Rosemary's voice and skips around in time, seemingly wherever her mind takes her. Other reviewers here have mentioned that the way in which the story is told reminds them of a memoir. I personally thought it was like reading a transcript of an oral interview. Rosemary often addresses the reader directly, and she tells us what is in her mind exactly as she thinks it.
On one hand, I think this is a brilliant strategy, and it makes for an engaging protagonist in Rosemary. She's a believable narrator, if not an entirely likable one. On the other hand, though, it sometimes makes for a confusing, muddled reading experience. While reading this, I would often forget where "in time" I was in the story. Rosemary would relate an event in one section, then skip ahead, then go back and tell us more about that first event MUCH later in the story. I kept getting lost in the narrative, which often feels bogged down by random events that don't seem to matter in the arc of the story (Harlow, in my opinion, could have been a much more minor character and the story wouldn't have suffered).
Karen Joy Fowler explores a lot of big issues in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: the reliability of memory, the treatment of animals, the bonds of family. She clearly did a lot of research into both memory and animal experimentation -- but much of the research is delivered in a lecture-y, unengaging way, and it goes on for pages at a time. I understand her commitment to writing in Rosemary's voice, but I think the science could have been delivered more effectively. I did respond viscerally to the research regarding animal experimentation, and I'm certain that was exactly what Fowler intended.
The strength of the novel is in the relationship between Rosemary and her simian sister Fern. Rosemary's memories of them together as children are written beautifully and honestly, and the ending of the novel is perfect. Unfortunately, the book as a whole feels too scattered, and as a result, the big issues that Fowler discusses in its pages aren't explored as effectively as they could have been had they been presented in a more streamlined approach. I have to give kudos to Fowler for her actual writing of this book; a novel told entirely in memories is definitely an intriguing concept. Unfortunately, the execution just fell short for me.
67 of 85 people found the following review helpful
There's a twist in Karen Joy Fowler's new novel, but you probably already know about it. The cover copy gives it away, and I imagine most reviews will too. This one certainly will, in the next paragraph, because you can't really discuss the book without doing so. But if by some miracle you don't know already, you might want to read WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES before you find out. If so, let me just say that it's definitely a novel I recommend, funny and well-observed and briskly paced. The ending may be a little too upbeat and consoling, but Fowler arranges things carefully so the consolation doesn't cloy and the whiff of middlebrow sentimentality never becomes more than a whiff. There are a lot of books out there about middle-class dysfunction, and despite its novel conceit this one doesn't break new thematic ground, but its small insights and crisp prose make it worth reading all the same.
Rosemary Cooke's life changed forever when she was five and her sister Fern disappeared. In the aftermath of that loss, the family splintered, and older brother Lowell eventually ran away from home. So far so typical-- it might be the ORDINARY PEOPLE of the early 21st century- but here's the thing: Fern was a chimpanzee, brought into the Cooke home as part of a scientific experiment. The fact that she was no less a sister to Rosemary, and her absence no less devastating, suggests the central issue of WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES, namely the thinness of the differences between human beings and animals, and the moral consequences of that thinness for animal experimentation. That makes the book sound heavy, but it isn't. Indeed, the disappointing thing about the novel is that it pulls its punches just a bit, taking a triangulating position neither the author nor the narrator really seems likely to believe in. At one point, Rosemary writes, "Nobody's arguing these issues are easy." That may be true, but I don't think she, or Fowler, would argue that they're particularly hard either, except for the sake of an ersatz literary notion of balance. By the same token, the ending backs away from the darker tone of the middle, giving off an anodyne "time heals most wounds" air. Of course time does, but the evocation of Rosemary's despair and social alienation is so quietly powerful that its abrupt resolution feels contrived rather than earned. There is, however, enough left realistically unresolved or tragic that the dissatisfaction doesn't become pervasive.
Fowler has that essential gift of the social novelist: the ability to create moments that capture the common experiences of familial function and dysfunction but are specific enough not to feel like trite or cliched emotional manipulation. She also demonstrates a remarkable capacity to think out the various consequences for all concerned of raising a chimpanzee and a human as twin sisters, from the unique sibling rivalry that arises to Rosemary's eventual difficulties bonding with human children. The narrative is tightly structured so that each turn of events works simultaneously as a logical outgrowth of what has preceded it and as part of a web of themes and motifs that also brings in human and chimpanzee gender roles and the nature of memory. Witty asides enhance the rhythm of the clockwork plot, as when Rosemary remembers a radio talk show caller who complained about being forced to read DRACULA and adds "(Let's just pause here for a moment to imagine how a person who felt imposed on by vampires back in 1979 feels today. And then, right back to my story.)" Given its ambitions, WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES could scarcely be a better-written book than it is. I do wish it wanted to push its readers a little more, but hey, you can't have everything.
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Karen Fowler writes Science Fiction stories. Great ones. She's won the prestigious Nebula Award, not once but twice. Now no doubt you are wondering, so what? If you know anything about Fowler's tear-provoking, often hilarious, brilliantly realized new novel, "We are All Completely Beside Ourselves," then surely you know that it isn't a work of science fiction. If you've suffered the misfortune of reading most reviews, then you know this novel's great reveal. Spoiler alert here: I will give you no spoilers. If, as I suspect, it was the choice of some narrow minded, imagination-impaired PR-type in the publisher's marketing department to go ahead and splash right on the cover what by rights should be this summer's most delicious literary reveal, well I won't abed his sin by repetition. Yes, that tidbit is the backbone of a great plot. Yet at its heart, Fowler's novel isn't one of plot, it is a work of character.
So why mention those great sci-fi stories? Likely it is this author's practiced sci-fi pen that helps here in understanding no plot can overcome the need for great characters. Starships, robots, alternate dimensions, and the most cleverly crafted aliens are no substitute for a character's essential humanity. All Fowler's characters in this novel, from the narrator on down, exhibit just the sort of humanity which will make you laugh and weep.
I worry that saying much more will reveal too much.
One thing worthy of note is the excellence of Fowler's narrator Rosemary, as living, breathing a character as I've seen recently on the page. Without mentioning titles or authors, reviewers recently heaped much praise on a novel that was written in a prose of extraordinary grace. The problem with that novel was that the narrator often suffered a ventriloquist dummies' manhandling when the author stepped into her mouth to make every sort of social observation that strained credulity coming from a sexy motor cycle riding, recent college grad, want-to-be artist. Fowler never makes that mistake. No, Rosemary's observations all feel genuine to her character, as if this fine author summoned her to page, séance-like. The descriptions are Rosemary's. The jokes - and they are often just blisteringly funny! - are Rosemary's. And the tragedy, which comes down on the reader's chest with the force of a fright train and the stealth of a ninja is likewise Rosemary's as well. While obviously a creation of Fowler, Rosemary is no mouth piece. Fowler's perspective characters, always artfully distinct, here add what may be the most elegantly constructed among their number.
Beyond character, Fowler's novel is also one of ideas, giving thoughtful consideration to notions of love, loss, and attachment, and whether after suffering a great loss one can ever hope to again be made whole. While few if any readers will share Rosemary's most unusual upbringing, likely all will find much that is familiar in her struggles.
32 of 40 people found the following review helpful
This book is really touching on so many levels.
It deals with the shattered family dynamic after the loss of one of the family members. In this case, that family member happens to be a chimpanzee. As part of a psychological experiment, a young chimpanzee was placed with the family and raised as a twin to the youngest child, Rosemary. Fern, the chimp, and Rosemary are inseperable for the first six years of their lives then, without warning, Fern is removed from the household. Little explanation is given to the young, confused Rosemary who rather than trying to find out the truth, simply tries to make everything right again by doing exactly what is expected of her at all times. Her older brother Lowell reacts oppositely and begins to pull away from everyone. The slow disintegration of the family as it refuses to deal with the loss of Fern is completely believable. It's something that my family went through and is still going through after the loss of my very human younger sister. It's heartbreaking.
The novel also explores how animals are treated by modern society as part of scientific experiments. Lowell eventually becomes a member of a violent Animal Rights group. Rosemary is our narrator so all this is told through her eyes. She wonders at times whether what she remembers from childhood is really the truth or a memory that has been created through hearing other people tell the story or looking at photos. She is weighed down by the guilt that she carries for abandoning Fern as well as by the stigma of being "the monkey girl". There are no earth shattering revelations here. It's just an honest look at how loss affects us all both personally and as a family and how being honest and opening yourself up to the pain that comes with the honesty can lead to a healing of your heart and mind. It's a beautifully written and wonderfully readable story. It will make you think about what defines family and loyalty and love.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2014
I found this boo, written by Karen Joy Fowler, through a recommendation on Amazon. I believe I was reviewing The Signature of All Things when this popped up as a "you might also like..." So, trusting their logarithms and other statistical points I know nothing about, I chose to read it. I am truly, deeply surprised I finished it. This book was a hot mess. That it was compelling enough for me to see how it ended is a plus in its favor, but I really have nothing else very kind to say about this book. Oddly enough, it does have high reviews on Amazon, from commercial reviewers, authors, and readers alike, but I just did not care for this book.
The narrator is pretentious. In the first part of the book, she uses big words to throw off her young classmates. Now, she's supposed to be doing it to show us, the lowly reader, how she was part of psychological studies as a child, by her psychologist father. But, the end result, I developed - rather quickly - a complete and total dislike of the narrator, Rosemary. I also developed a similar dislike to her father, mother, and brother, but that was planned by the narrator. Garner her more sympathy, and when the "real" poopoo comes out, she will be safe from your hatred.
The book moves as quickly through time and space as the TARDIS does (yes another not-so-subtle Doctor Who tie-in), but without as many points of reference. I found myself lost as to whether we were "now" or "then." The fact that the narrator repeatedly says she does not know if she remembered this or if it was a dream or a fantasy added to the whole disjointed feeling, in a sort of "is it real or is it Memorex sort of way". Some reviewers said the book had subtle humor throughout, but the only humor offered is from Harlow, who is such a minor character, she does not appear as often as I would have liked.
Okay, but enough about why I did not like it. The book is about Rosemary, who until the age of five, had a sister. A sister who just happened to be a chimpanzee. When Rosemary was five, her sister, Fern, unexpectedly is sent away. The book revolves around the anguish the family felt afterwards, and continues to feel for many years. Fern and Rosemary were part of a psychological study, that apparently was somewhat popular in the mid-twentieth century. There are numerous mentions of psychologists and their articles/papers (which for the psychology student in me, was fascinating).
And that, my friends, is basically that. I truly did not like this book, kept reading it to see if it could redeem itself and because I was very curious to see how it could all be tied together. On a five-star rating, this would earn a dismal two, and only my curiosity kept it from a "1-star". I rarely, rarely ever give anything lower than a three, and I very seldom even give a three.
Off to my next book, I am eyeballing Seating Arrangements, but I will not know for sure what I am reading next until I am halfway through.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2013
I liked this novel. It was different from anything I've read. The narrative was very disjointed at times, and that would be my primary complaint. However, I liked the narrator and I was interested in her story. I am hesitant to write a proper review, as I don't want to give away a central plot point. Ultimately, this novel is about coping with loss and family and the whole messy world of family. Memories differ from family member to family member and the narrator must learn what the truth is for her and her memories. The novel had a lot going on and the narrative was curious, as it was not very linear. Overall, it was an interesting and intriguing novel.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2014
I read this book on a kindle and did not read any reviews in advance. I would recommend doing that, as there's a big twist that the cover and many of the reviews will spoil for you. Actually, stop reading this review if you don't want the surprise ruined.
I found the concept of raising a chimp as a member of the family to be very interesting, and I would like to know more about the actual families who have participated in these experiments. However, I did not enjoy this novel because I felt like the author used the chimp and other bizarre characters and set pieces as ways to spice up the story, rather than weaving them seamlessly into the plot. For example, there is a Madame Defarge marionette puppet and a CIA-wannabe landlord that seem out of place in the story. To me, a cleaner story that focused on the family would have been more interesting.
I would recommend this book for anyone interested in animal rights and psychology.