A quick trip to Big Sur brought me to Nepenthe, the former cabin owned by Orson Welles that was transformed into a cliffside gathering place for artists in the 1950s. The new owners were the parents of textile designer Kaffe Fassett, whose fabric I had just used at quilt camp. The connection was a pleasant surprise, and the adjacent shop housed more of Fassett’s unique designs as well as his biography.
The book section displayed books from famous writers who lived and wrote near Big Sur, including Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and John Steinbeck. I discovered one of Steinbeck’s short stories – “The Flight” – in the collection “The Long Valley, and I felt a special connection as I read Steinbeck’s words while I looked out over the beautiful vista. If you can’t get there in person, Steinbeck’s words will transport you. “The Flight” begins with:
“Out fifteen miles below Monterey, on the wild coast, the Torres family had their farm, a few sloping acres above a cliff that dropped to the brown reefs and to the hissing white waters of the ocean. Behind the farm the stone mountains stood up against the sky. The farm buildings huddled like the clinging aphids on the mountain skirts, crouched low to the ground as though the wind might blow them into the sea…”
If you take Barbara Kingsolver’s advice in her New York Times review of Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, as I did – “avoiding everything written about it…” including Kingsolver’s review - you will enjoy the surprise that Fowler conceals until almost 100 pages into the story. No spoilers here but you might consider stopping right here so you won’t risk it.
Rosemary Cooke, narrates the tale of her family. Her father is a respected university psychologist with a crew of graduate students to help with his research in animal behavior. She starts her story “in the middle” and jumps back and forth from her college days at the University of California Davis to her childhood with her brother, Lowell, who becomes a fugitive from the FBI before graduating from high school, and her sister, Fern, who suffers a terrible fate when she is only five years old, that changes everything for everyone.
Fowler includes some comic moments with a puppet modeled after Madame Defarge (Madame Guillotine), but the serious notes predominate, with frequent references to scientific study and political upheaval – at times overwhelming the story with detailed erudite citations and shocking brutal treatment of animals. In addition to her obvious agenda for animal rights, Fowler slowly unravels family lives that are irrevocably sidetracked. When the surprise is revealed, the consequences of family interaction seem unique to their situation, but by the end Fowler has connected the story to all families who suffer the distractions of sibling rivalry as well as family loyalty. And, she may challenge your perception of what is normal human behavior.
It’s no surprise that the New York Times asked Kingsolver to write the review; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has faint notes of Flight Behavior – a book with a message and characters who will stay with you.