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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Paperback – January 1, 2014
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The novel is narrated by Rosemary Cooke who, in 1996, is 22 years old and resides in Davis, California. "Ten years had passed since I'd last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared." The family's past is slowly revealed. Rosemary's father is a college professor to whom she barely speaks. Her mother has been a go-between for Rosemary and her father but has decided that she would no longer do this. Rosemary is a fifth year student at the University of California, Davis but is still far from graduation.
Rosemary grew up in Bloomington, Indiana where her parents still reside. Except for Thanksgiving, she rarely sees her father. "Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability." We learn that Rosemary's older brother left home years ago and her sister is a missing mystery named Fern.
Very shortly into the novel, Rosemary takes the reader back to 1979 when Rosemary is five years old, the year her sister disappeared. "I'd been angry about Fern's disappearance, but it seemed too dangerous just then to be mad at our parents and I was frightened instead."
It would be a shame to give more of the plot away. Suffice it to say, that Fern is a mystery that we are shortly privy to. Rosemary's brother also is a mystery, a lost child to her and her parents. What has happened in this family to destroy bonds and make children disappear with animosity and antagonism? It is not likely anything you are thinking. This is a book that is a must-read and one I will never forget.
Over and above the dysfunctionality of the family, however, is the book’s internal concern on animal experimentations and the ethics of the handling the animals by scientists and the laboratories. To say more on the subject would be giving away the plot.
From where I stand, I can say that this book was a delightful surprise, although it has dark, shattering and deeply moving sides to it. The wit of the speaker, the brilliance in the unfolding of the plot, the depth in the scenes, and the handling of tension and suspense are absolutely exquisite.
To take a different plot of such an unusual family, to make their story absolutely believable, and to give it a heart as well is not any run-of-the-mill author’s feat. For this novel, Karen Joy Fowler deserves a huge applause.
It is the 1990's and man regards animals as his chattel, not terribly different from today. Ape experiments were dense on the ground and several families had attempted the experiment of raising an ape as a child. These experiences have rendered both the humans and the apes in a state which is not a fit for either species. The most compelling theme of this book is the concept of "uncanny valley response" which is the "human aversion to things that look almost but not quite like people." Rosemary's entering kindergarten with ape-like mannerisms triggered this response in her new peers, just as wild animals classically do poorly when released from domestic life into the wild.
The line of human and "human like" is well explored in an intelligent and literate form. References are drawn from the non-fiction world of interaction. Into the mix is the role of memory as it can "seem like a mist, as if what really happened matter less than what should have happened." The actor in this synthesis is language which serves to mold our memories into edifices. And language is the hinge on which the human species moves away from its relatives. Expressive language other than simple words and phrases is the gold standard for awarding human status and is the impetus for many an experiment.
This is a thoughtful book that engages the reader fully and quickly. I had this book recommended to me from a multitude of sources online, including Amazon. It just never appealed to me, so I am late to the reading. Now short listed for awards, I was compelled to try it and recommend it to you. Just as the idea of raising an ape with a human is not at all what the surface may suggest, this book has deeper rivers to row.
Top international reviews
The novel is based on the real experience of a number of American families, and I then wanted to learn about that history, so I read ... Well, I can't tell you, without the spoiler! So, only look this up if you've read the novel and want to read more about its theme, but I recommend the work of Roger Fouts.
"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" has a style that not everyone will enjoy - it feels like a young adult's narration, quirky, and a bit jerky too. That worked for me, as the narrator is a young adult whose life have been disrupted, and is trying to find some balance. I found it easy to read, and it ultimately made me really think about humanity, family, and other related subjects.
The author has created several memorable characters including the narrator, Rosemary, who is both endearing and irritating at the same time; her brother Lowell, idealistic and very driven; her self- introduced friend Harlow, certainly flaky, but evoking our sympathy; her mother, who struggles with depression; and her father, whose truly unpleasant character is revealed very early in the story.
I found this very disturbing book, and not just in its references to the way human beings have treated our primate brothers and sisters as merely experimental animals. It says much about modern family relationships, and the pressures that young people face in a world that is becoming more and more threatening. Karen Joy Fowler writes fluently, creating a fairytale world of the very young in counterpoint to the harsh reality of adolescent/early adult life.
It certainly was not silly . Should have realised how seriously it was going to take itself by the chapter headings being quotes from Kafka (not that I could discern any particular relevance to the text that followed)
It seems a very long book with a lot of worthy intentions . It is thought- provoking and made me re-visit (and mostly confirm) my views on the treatment of animals and ther relationship to and humans.
But it was all so earnest and the characters were mostly odd balls incapable if inciting any sympathy or empathy
Also the book was devoid of any kind of humour which really did make it hard work
The length of the end-notes and appendices suggests that the author had high hopes of the status that this book might attain .
The idea was undoubtedly good but the execution was wanting in lots of respects and I was jut gad to have finaaly finished it. - a missed opportunity
Very briefly then, this novel starts out very normally and I thought I was going to enjoy the account of life in the Cooke household where the three siblings Lowell, Fern and Rosemary were growing up. Personally I found Rosemary to be extremely annoying, what a misery she was, making her life far more hellish than it needed to be surely. What a dysfunctional family unit they were and being used by one's parents in such a strange way obviously had a very bewildering effect on the children. When you come to the twist you will start to realise why!
There is no doubt that the author is a talented writer and in theory the plot is a very clever one and the novel is well deserving of it's short listing for the Man Booker Prize. However it was just not for me, I found the concept completely unappealing, maybe I was meant to, it is certainly a disturbing one. With the strong themes of grief, loss and animal experimentation this is not a novel for the faint hearted.
There’s science in it too. Rosemary’s parents were scientists and she frequently second-guesses herself, tries to make sure she’s being reasonable whilst telling her story. For example, when she describes her experiences at age five, she points out that realistically, she probably can’t actually remember what happened, and may be just re-telling stories that she herself has been told. She’s sceptical about being too ready to trust her own memories, but she’s also sceptical about the science which tells her that she can’t.
It’s a satisfying, funny, sad, uplifting, wonderful book and if someone I know doesn’t go and read it quickly I think I’m going to burst from not talking about it.
I found it very difficult to get into and was tempted to toss it aside even after the big 'twist' is revealed. I didn't find any of the characters particularly engaging or likeable. I think perhaps the author was trying to be a little too clever with the prose, although this is probably why the critics loved it.
It is an interesting concept and will spark discussion on animal welfare issues but, in my humble opinion, too dull to be memorable!
I found it quite hard to figure out for a long time what the story was actually about and what the actual point was. It felt like someones random thoughts poured out which is fine if it's a journal of someone we know something about but I just didn't get the point of the whole 'starting thew story from the middle' thing. But that might just be me - if you struggle with concentration you might find this one hard work!
I applaud reviewers who appraise "We Are Completely Beside Ourselves" without revealing too much about it – I loved, truly loved the fact that I had no idea what it was about and therefore took it one page at a time. And I nearly shed a tear at the end (and note: this is not a spoiler, this is just my reaction to everything… happy? sad?).
Recommended. And an extra star for author's humour!
Although does have very sad thought provoking views, which could be true, I felt the overview was completely misleading so wasn't left completely beside myself only drained, so really wouldn't recommend to anyone that is looking for an uplifting and life changing read.