We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

9780399162091_p0_v3_s260x420If 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.

The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

How far back can you remember? Most memories of being very young depend on stories told by parents – sometimes embellished, but usually dependable sources of personal history.

Maggie O’Farrell newest novel, The Hand That First Held Mine, offers a bumpy ride through the memory of generations. As you flip back and forth between the lives of new parents, Elina and Ted, to the saga of Lexie and Innes and later Felix, you may guess the connection before Part Two, yet you will be unsure enough to wonder and keep going.

Lexie’s life is the heart of the novel – where it begins and ends. She escapes the English countryside as a young girl to an unconventional life in London, moves in with a married man, starts a career as a writer, and later has a child.

In what seems a parallel universe, but many years later, Elina, an unmarried talented artist, struggles through the physical and mental pains of raising her own son, with Ted – who seems to be experiencing his own brand of postpartum depression. O’Farrell’s vivid description of the insecurity and mundane that parents experience with a new baby will have you feeling as tired and mad as the characters.

O’Farrell’s writing is like a screenplay script with the director’s notes to the actors built-in. She gives every detail of the scene and includes the character’s thought and thought-process at the same time. At times, you will feel you are there in the room with Elina or Lexie; other times, you will want to just skip over the tedium and get to the plot.

If you miss Innes’s blue felt suit or Lexie’s wrists, O’Farrell will bring them back to you again – the costumes and scenery add authenticity but are not relevant. It is the character’s inner thoughts that carry the clues to the storyline.

The mystery unravels too slowly, at times, and the back and forth constraints can be irritating and confusing. Yet, O’Farrell teases with hints that there is more – Ted’s flashbacks, the foreshadowing of Lexie’s life ending, provocative lines – “…the truth is often overrated.” Even if you don’t attend to the clues, you will still see how it all fits in the end.

The plot takes the characters through unexpected turns of betrayal, ambition, and perseverance, that slowly gets to a satisfying ending.

I found O’Farrell with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. In that much tighter and shorter story, O’Farrell also made a statement about betrayal. A woman is hidden away supposedly for her own good – more likely for the convenience of family. The story reminded me of Emily Mann’s play, Mrs. Packard, based on a real story of a 19th century woman who is sent to an asylum for disagreeing with her husband. Esme Lennox is fictional and not as politically charged , but her resurrection is as jarring as that of Mrs. Packard. If you have not read it yet, do.

Add Maggie O’Farrell to your list of authors who can tell a good story.