Karen Joy Fowler’s “We are all Completely Beside Ourselves” has been one of the most unique reads I’ve completed over the past few years. I have heard all kinds of things about this book, including inklings of unusual circumstances about the story’s central family. So I wasn’t entirely thrown by a small revelation at about the 1/3 point that changes the entire dynamic of the book. Let me just say, if you don’t know and / or don’t want to know this bit of information that is definitely on the book jacket, don’t continue.
We find out that the narrator, Rosemary, was raised with a chimpanzee as her sister, and the story of why both of Rosemary’s siblings are no longer in the family unfolds painfully as Rosemary digs deep and encounters long-lost memories that may or may not be convoluted by time. There are constant illusions to a specific incident that rips her family apart… references to a farmhouse and casual mentions of college students that are also researchers spending time with both Rose and Fern, her twin sister. Then there is Lowell, the moody big brother that Rose idolizes but cannot locate in the present day until she meets a fellow college student with less than pure intentions in a student cafeteria, and this is where our tale begins.
At times frustrating and at others almost droll due to psychology lingo being thrown about as if it’s approachable (which, because she was raised with it, it totally is for young Rose) our narrator’s method of storytelling is slow and possibly plodding. But there is so much humanity poured into every word, we cannot fault her for a minute. How many times have you wrestled with mis-remembering the crimes of your childhood? Now take that number, and imagine your own father was using you for a research study upon which a large sum of money and his reputation was dependent.
I have to mention that this was my first-ever audiobook experience. Instead of reading Rose’s words, I listened to them, and that did make a significant difference. I was at the gym when Rose talked about sneaking out of the farmhouse with her brother in the middle of the night to have an adventure, and pictured the entire scene, and realized I had stopped in the middle of an exercise. There is little to no risk of that happening while flipping pages.
Overall, I do recommend this read. I found the key points were brought together in a clever way because Rose starts her story in the middle (she mentions this a few times in an attempt to pat herself on the back for her writing prowess). Each family member has their own flaws, and my opinion of both human offspring changed a few times as the book progressed. As her memory grows more clear, and then she takes a trip home to see her parents, the exponential growth of Rose’s arrest record becomes a point of humor for the family as well.
By the time I was finished reading it did not seem too unusual to picture two young children with two parents and a chimpanzee at the dinner table, laughing and sharing a meal and making memories. The idea that those children would become attached to the chimp, and do everything to protect her like a normal sibling, made complete sense. Isn’t family, after all, something we build for ourselves?