Monthly Archives: April 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

we are all

The minute I heard about this book, I decided I needed to read it, even though everything I read about it spoiled the twist. So even though every other reviewer and even the cover illustration on the paperback spoil the twist, I am NOT going to say what it is. Which makes reviewing this book difficult, but hey, you can’t blame me if you figure it out before you get there.

We start the story in the middle, as our protagonist Rosemary is in college in California. She begins telling us her story, purposely telling us that she is starting in the middle for a reason. She often mentions her childhood and her relationship with her brother Lowell and sister Fern, but refuses to give many details. We learn that Fern left the family when she and Rosemary were little, but it is not clear how or why this happened – we just know that she is gone, and that her departure has somehow scarred Rosemary and Lowell. Their mother suffered a nervous breakdown around that same time, but has since recovered, and the family does not talk about Fern – ever. Lowell left home as a teen and has not been seen since, and has been loosely tied to some crimes attributed to an animal rights group. Rosemary avoids her parents as much as she can, but when she visits for Thanksgiving, her mother offers her some journals she has kept – from the time that Fern still lived at home. Rosemary is intrigued but terrified to read them – and then they are lost, along with her luggage, when she returns to school.

Rosemary chose her college for two reasons – it was far from Indiana, where she grew up, and it was in the last city she knew her brother to have been in. She lives her life with two vague hopes – that she will eventually decide what to major in and that her brother will somehow find her. Both hopes are fulfilled in the novel, and along the way we learn why it is that Rosemary has never really had a friend, why she has no idea how to behave socially, and why she willingly throws in her lot with a new friend who is so wild that their first encounter lands them both in jail. When she finally recovers her mother’s journals and begins to read them, Rosemary begins the long process of repairing her relationship with her mother and finally addressing the loss of Fern.

All in all, the book was worth reading even knowing the twist in advance. It is a fascinating study in relationships, and of how even families with the best possible intentions can screw each other up beyond repair, yet still love each other enough to keep trying anyway. Plus I just liked Rosemary, for no reason I can put my finger on. Her voice is just the right balance of longing and snark.

A related thing – I just read an article last week in Elle magazine (the April 2014 issue) where female authors suggest their favorite books by other female authors. I found it fitting that Ruth Ozeki, whose book A Tale for the Time Being is near the top of my list of Best Books Ever, chose this book. See, one of my favorite authors agrees with me, this book is good.