We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler


51iINEHnDqL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_This will be one of the top ten books for me for 2016 for sure. I was impressed by the author's work The Jane Austen Book Club in 2009 and was excited to hear that Jen and Brooke would have lunch with her before the Luther College convocation. And so I was motivated to listen to this one. What a pleasure it was all the way through.

As the NYT review says, it would be preferable to review it without disclosing a key piece of information that is dramatically revealed one-fourth of the way into the book, but even the blurb on the book tells that the narrator's "sister" is a chimp, brought into the family a month after Rosemary is born. This is the fictionalized story like the cases that occurred in experimental settings beginning in the 1930s. These experiments usually end very badly for the chimp or rhesus monkey (as I vaguely recall reading in the past), but this narrative tells the effect on the humans in the family, as well as Fern, the chimp.

The telling of the story is conversational, with the narrator occasionally giving asides directly to the reader, as well as being a gripping narrative. It was a long while before I was struck by the fact that this is a polemical novel and that delay made its point so much stronger. Perhaps I will refrain from reducing her brilliant work to a few awkward sentences so that you can discover it in all its beauty. I will say that the end was surprisingly lovely. 

Following are a few unconnected points I want to remember:

I admired the phrase "stropping his stories into knives," used by the narrator to describe her brother's motivation for talking about Fern to their parents after she disappeared from their lives. 

The narrator described a friend's mother, a famous civil rights lawyer, this way: "Picture William Kunstler, only not so lovable." I did actually see William Kunstler defending students' free speech at the University of Tennessee where I worked for the student government association in the late 1960s and he completely charmed the judge. Of course he had a different approach defending the Chicago Seven.

About librarians, she says, "When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy. Even their smaller sorrows will last only for as long as you can take out a book."

A significant part of this book is set in the 1970s Bloomington, Indiana, at just the time I was there. It was lovely to hear references to that town which remains magical to me, but I must mention the jarring reference to "Lemon Lake." Dear friends of ours lived on Lake Lemon.

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2013, 310 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon. 



  • Yes, I was referring to Anne and Bruce. They built a beautiful house there after we left. When we lived there, Lake Lemon was best known to me as the location of a beloved dive that deep fried catfish. So good!


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