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67 of 85 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, May 1, 2013
This review is from: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Pen/Faulkner Award - Fiction) (Hardcover)
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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.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 6, 2013 1:06:06 AM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 6, 2013 7:15:21 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 6, 2013 7:21:39 AM PDT
There's a spoiler alert in the first paragraph, Judith. I'm sorry if you missed it in your rush to criticize everyone who mentioned a vital aspect of the book in reviewing it, but it's right there.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 6, 2013 11:50:03 AM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 7, 2013 10:41:40 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 7, 2013 10:50:39 AM PDT
elizabeth says:
I must be utterly dense, thank goodness, for I have no idea what either of you are talking about!

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 12, 2013 5:22:38 PM PDT
J. A Magill says:
Tragically, that *spoiler* is on the jacket and in near every review. While I don't like it, you can't really complain too much when author and publisher already gave up the ghost.

Posted on Jul 18, 2013 10:15:50 AM PDT
Hmmm. After hearing the radio interview and reviews, I'm still vaguely interested, but I think I'll wait until it's on kindle. I feel like I've already read it.(Separate issue, I know, but why is that? Many new titles are not available on kindle? I guess they don't make enough money that way.)

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 23, 2013 6:03:34 PM PDT
It's already on Kindle: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 22, 2014 9:35:12 AM PDT
Seriously?! Is your life so empty and boring that this is how you get your kicks: wailing on about a review that repeats what's on the book cover and gives you a spoiler alert in the first paragraph? Maybe it's time to stop reading about the world and actually venture out into it.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 16, 2014 11:27:38 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 16, 2014 11:32:09 AM PDT
estaQ says:
THAAAANK YOUUUU!!!
I wanted to strangle someone (specifically, the reviewer) when I read the Booklist review, first in this book's reviews by critics. Gave away the entire secret right off the bat! To be fair, if the cover reveals the secret, I likely would have found out when I got it in my hands, as that's part of how I decide to buy a book: the cover copy. But I can only imagine what it would be like if the movie The Sixth Sense was handled this way.

Two things I'd like to see happen:
ARE YOU LISTENING AMAZON??? If a professional reviewer's critique reveals key plot devices or surprises that are meant to be consumed organically by the reader, in the order of the Author's design, DON'T INCLUDE THAT REVIEW!!!

Also, the book jacket should NOT contain spoilers, and the fact that it does only shows me how little input the Author is allowed. A good argument for Self-Publishing, if you ask me.

HOWEVER! I may still buy this book based primarily on her prose, just reading the prologue describing her very young self. Sure the story surprise may have been wrecked for me, but it should be a pleasure to see how she arrives there. I adore good writing, and based only on that first bit, that's what I'll get reading this. But I'm still mad about the spoilers.

I am going to buy the short story collection, because I know I'll enjoy the writing.

Posted on Nov 15, 2014 5:30:26 PM PST
This is one of the most pretentious reviews I've ever read! It's loaded with jargon & sounds like a college book report. "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." Seriously? It sounds very academic but what does this actually MEAN?
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