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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel Paperback – February 25, 2014

4.1 out of 5 stars 1,793 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* As a girl in Indiana, Rosemary, Fowler’s breathtakingly droll 22-year-old narrator, felt that she and Fern were not only sisters but also twins. So she was devastated when Fern disappeared. Then her older brother, Lowell, also vanished. Rosemary is now prolonging her college studies in California, unsure of what to make of her life. Enter tempestuous and sexy Harlow, a very dangerous friend who forces Rosemary to confront her past. We then learn that Rosemary’s father is a psychology professor, her mother a nonpracticing scientist, and Fern a chimpanzee. Fowler, author of the best-selling The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), vigorously and astutely explores the profound consequences of this unusual family configuration in sustained flashbacks. Smart and frolicsome Fern believes she is human, while Rosemary, unconsciously mirroring Fern, is instantly tagged “monkey girl” at school. Fern, Rosemary, and Lowell all end up traumatized after they are abruptly separated. As Rosemary—lonely, unmoored, and caustically funny—ponders the mutability of memories, the similarities and differences between the minds of humans and chimps, and the treatment of research animals, Fowler slowly and dramatically reveals Fern and Lowell’s heartbreaking yet instructive fates. Piquant humor, refulgent language, a canny plot rooted in real-life experiences, an irresistible narrator, threshing insights, and tender emotions—Fowler has outdone herself in this deeply inquisitive, cage-rattling novel. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“A novel so readably juicy and surreptitiously smart, it deserves all the attention it can get . . . [Its] fresh diction and madcap plot bend the tone toward comedy, but it never mislays its solemn raison d’être. Monkeyshines aside, this is a story of Everyfamily in which loss engraves relationships, truth is a soulful stalker and coming-of-age means facing down the mirror, recognizing the shape-shifting notion of self.”—Barbara Kingsolver, The New York Times Book Review

“Fowler’s interests here are in what sets humans apart from their fellow primates. Cognitive, language and memory skills all come into playful question. But the heart of the novel — and it has a big, warm, loudly beating heart throughout — is in its gradually pieced-together tale of family togetherness, disruption and reconciliation. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is Fowler at her best, mixing cerebral and emotional appeal together in an utterly captivating manner.”—The Seattle Times  

“Rosemary’s voice is achingly memorable, and Fowler’s intelligent discourse on science vs. compassion reshapes the traditional family novel into something more universally relevant. The Cookes are unlike other families and like them at the same time, and through Rosemary’s unique perspective Fowler forces us to confront some tough truths. This brave, bold, shattering novel reminds us what it means to be human, in the best and worst sense.”—The Miami Herald
 “Rosemary’s voice—vulnerable, angry, shockingly honest—is so compelling and the cast of characters, including Fern, irresistible.  A fantastic novel: technically and intellectually complex, while emotionally gripping.”—Kirkus (starred review)
“Piquant humor, refulgent language, a canny plot rooted in real-life experiences, an irresistible narrator, threshing insights, and tender emotions—Fowler has outdone herself in this deeply inquisitive, cage-rattling novel.”—Booklist (starred review)
“A strong, unsettling novel . . . Fowler explores the depths of human emotions and delivers a tragic love story that captures our hearts.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Rosemary’s experience [is] a fascinating basis for insight into memory, the mind, and human development . . . Fowler’s great accomplishment is not just that she takes the standard story of a family and makes it larger, but that the new space she’s created demands exploration.”—Publishers Weekly
"In this curious, wonderfully intelligent novel, Karen Joy Fowler brings to life a most unusual family.  Wonderful Fern, wonderful Rosemary!  Through them we feel what it means to be a human animal."Andrea Barrett, author of Servants of the Map and Ship Fever
“Karen Joy Fowler has written the book she's always had in her to write.  With all the quiet strangeness of her amazing Sarah Canary, and all the breezy wit and skill of her beloved Jane Austen Book Club, and a new, urgent gravity, she has told the story of an American family. An unusual family—but aren't all families unusual?  A very American, an only-in-America family—and yet an everywhere family, whose children, parents, siblings, love one another very much, and damage one another badly.  Does the love survive the damage?  Will human beings survive the damage they do to the world they love so much?  This is a strong, deep, sweet novel.”—Ursula K. Le Guin, author of Lavinia, The Unreal and the Real, and the Earthsea Cycle
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a dark cautionary tale hanging out, incognito-style, in what at first seems a traditional family narrative. It is anything but. This novel is deliciously jaunty in tone and disturbing in material. Karen Joy Fowler tells the story of how one animal—the animal of man—can simultaneously destroy and expand our notion of what is possible.”—Alice Sebold, New York Times-bestselling author of The Lovely Bones and The Almost Moon
“You know how people say something is incredible or unbelievable when they mean it's excellent? Well, Karen Joy Fowler's new book is excellent: utterly believable and completely credible - a funny, moving, entertaining novel that is also an important and unblinking review of a shameful chapter in the history of science.”—Dr. Mary Doria Russell, biological anthropologist and author of The Sparrow and Doc

“It’s been years since I’ve felt so passionate about a book. When I finished at 3 a.m., I wept, then I woke up the next morning, reread the ending, and cried all over again.” Ruth Ozeki, author of My Year of Meats and A Tale for the Time Being
"This unforgettable novel is a dark and beautiful journey into the heart of a family,   an exploration of the meanings of memory, a study of what it means to be 'human.'  In the end the book doesn't just break your heart; it takes your heart and won't give it back."—Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply and Stay Awake
“It really is impossible to do justice here in a blurb. This is a funny, stingingly smart, and heartbreaking book. Among other things, it's about love, family, loss, and secrets; the acquisition and the loss of language. It's also about two sisters, Rosemary and Fern, who are unlike any other sisters you've ever met before.”—Kelly Link, author of Stranger Things Happen and Pretty Monsters

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons; Reprint edition (February 25, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142180823
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142180822
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,793 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #13,818 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A. Parker on May 30, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
"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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase

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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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