Wednesday, November 4, 2015

"We are All Completely Beside Ourselves": It will make you think about human and animal behavior

After finishing Karen Joy Fowler's "We are All Completely Beside Ourselves" a week ago, I needed time to really digest it and contemplate what I thought about it.

This book surprised me, made me think, and completely caught me off guard.  Know that if you really want to read this book that you should probably stop reading this post because it will spoil, what to me, was the surprise about Rosemary's (the narrator's) family.

When I picked up this book, I did indeed read the back cover, but somehow the story still caught me completely by surprise. Rosemary begins her story in the middle which became a habit from her childhood.  She talked so much all the time that her father would urge her to "skip the beginning. Start in the middle." And that is what she does.

The middle begins in 1996 when Rosemary gets involved with a semi-crazy college student at the University of California Davis whose breakup scene with her boyfriend in a diner pulls Rosemary from her 22 year old, bored college student life.  Rosemary is lonely, and feels distant from her family.  Her brother is missing and wanted by the FBI, her beloved sister disappeared, and her parents are both aloof and sad.

Rosemary gets tangled up with the disruptive girl from the diner who is named Harlow.  It's unclear why Rosemary, who by all accounts seems very straight and narrow, would form a friendship with such an erratic person, but she does. Interspersed within the story of her blossoming friendship with Harlow and their comical night of drug induced delusion,  Rosemary also recounts awkward Thanksgiving conversation memories. During her trips home, relatives fight about SAT scores and never really say how they really feel, but what isn't said sometimes is even more important than what is said at the dinner table.  She eludes to her siblings, but never actually admits that her sister, Fern, who disappeared one day was a . . . (huge spoiler alert) chimpanzee.  From here, her story weaves from her middle to the past and then finally circles around to the present.

I don't know why I didn't comprehend the truth about Fern when I read the back of the book, but somehow I gleaned over the part about the chimp and my brain latched onto the part that said this book was about "loving but fallible people whose well-intentioned actions lead to heartbreaking consequences." The well-intentioned action of trying to raise a baby chimp and a baby human together as siblings to study their behavior was indeed a flawed plan which resulted in the complete dissolution of a family in ways that none of them could have predicted.  Rosemary's mother went into a deep depression after Fern disappeared.  Rosemary's moody brother Lowell left, and her father became more distant than ever.  Rosemary herself tried to run away from her past - the stigma of being the "monkey girl" and the difficulty she had of communicating with children her age growing up, never left her.

Karen Joy Fowler gave me so much to think about in this book.  What does it mean to be human? How do we treat animals? What do we do in the name of science and humanity? Where does humanity stop and become cruelty? How do we right the wrongs of our past?

As Rosemary struggled to remember the details of her time with Fern and why Fern left their family, and then tries to piece together what happened to her brother, she begins to form a clearer truth of her past.  I love that she can't answer every question.  She can't completely forgive herself, but at the same time there is really no one to blame even though blame is thrown around quite a bit.  While she is piecing together the past, her present friendships and class lectures disturb her and make her question things even more.

The journey of Rosemary's coming-of-age story is a profound one.  Every family deals with loss and heartbreak and although Rosemary's family is anything but ordinary, the grief they feel over their mistakes and choices are universal.  Fowler deserves the high praise this book received for it's unique structure but even more because it will make you rethink what you really see when you look in the mirror, how we construct our memories, and how we define the meaning of family.

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