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.