Note: The audio and text of this review describe a major plot point that is not revealed until partway into the book.
If you know Karen Joy Fowler's writing only from her clever, 2004 best-seller, The Jane Austen Book Club, you're in for a shock. Fowler's new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, is a different literary creature altogether — still witty but emotionally and intellectually riskier, and more indebted to Fowler's other books that toy with the sci-fi genre.
In fact, all the time I was reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I kept thinking of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, a tragic, scientific romance that deals with cloning. Both novels share a curiosity about the weird, gray areas in our definition of what it means to be "human," and both are saturated with despair.
Fowler's novel is superb, but I've already warned a couple of sensitive animal lovers I know away from it. You should read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves only if you're willing to be upset and probably permanently haunted.
Our narrator here is named Rosemary Cooke, and she's in college when the novel opens. As Rosemary tells us, she's learned to "[s]kip the beginning and [s]tart in the middle" of her story. That's because if you heard the beginning right away, you'd get the wrong idea about one of her family members. Rosemary wants us to meet her parents; her twin sister, Fern; and her older brother, Lowell; slowly, in flashbacks. She's only reluctantly agreed to talk about her family because as she ultimately admits, she's the only adult child of the family "not currently in a cage."
At this point, I have to divulge something crucial about Fern's identity that the book jacket hints at, and Rosemary tells us about a quarter of the way into the story. What we readers come to suspect — and what we're finally told — is that Fern is a chimpanzee. Rosemary's father is a scientist studying animal behavior, and Rosemary and Fern were raised pretty much from birth to age 5 as twin sisters. Fern believed she was human and, as Rosemary says, the mirroring went both ways.
The most charming and comical parts of Fowler's novel deal with Rosemary's memories of her early childhood as part primate. Here's Rosemary's recollection of playing with Fern on a long-ago snow day:
Mom warns me to stay upright. No loping through the snow on my hands and feet. ...
[Fern] stuffs another handful of snow into her mouth, smacks her protuberant, acrobatic lips, and turns to look up at me, eyes, shining. Fern's eyes seem larger than human eyes because the whites are not white but an amber color. ... When I draw Fern's face, the crayon I use for her eyes is burnt sienna. Fern's own drawings are never finished, as she always eats the crayon.
Fern disappears when Rosemary is 5, and we don't learn what happened to her until the end of the novel. What Rosemary does chronicle, however, is how her family was shattered by Fern's leave-taking. Lowell grows up to be a militant animal-rights activist wanted by the FBI; her mother descends into depression; her father drinks. Rosemary thinks she endured the worst fate of all: She was forced to deny part of her essential self and "just" act human, starting in kindergarten; to refrain from biting, and from jumping on tables and desks when playing. All to no avail — the already formed tribe of human kids in school sensed Rosemary was different and shunned her, calling her a "monkey girl."
Fowler's smart and exquisitely sad novel provokes us to think about a lot of aspects of our relationship to animals that most of us would rather ignore. It also delves into other questions. Do animals think? Can they empathize? Do they have long-term memories?
Throughout her book, Fowler weaves in brief life histories of actual "cross fostered" chimps, including that of the famous Washoe, the first chimp to learn American Sign Language. Fowler quotes the researcher who was Washoe's longtime human companion. Speaking of their close connection, he once said that Washoe "taught him that in the phrase ' human being,' the word 'being' is much more important than the word 'human.' "
If you think such blurring of the categories between animals and humans is sentimental bunk or worse, blasphemy, Fowler's subversive novel dares you to think again.