We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. Book report #28 (2022)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. Pub 2013.

This book was a re-gift from a friend (who herself received it as a re-gift). My friend reported being surprised at enjoying this one, as she did not enjoy the author’s more famous book.

At the heart of this book is a surprising plot twist that I shall not spoil here, as it truly remarkable and worth a reader discovering for themselves. Instead, here’s a précis without a reveal:

While attending college, Rosemary is recounting her family history and story, and facing up to some of the lore and lessons from her past and present. Her family – dad, mom, a brother, and a sister – was wrenched apart, first by the disappearance of her sister and later by the departure of her brother. Making sense of that at the start of the middle of her life is essential for Rosemary to decide and then act on the rest of her life.

The novel looks at some of my favourite themes, including the fallibility of memory and the reliability of the narrator in the story. There are also elements of the line between science and belief, nature and nurture and the role of families in our development, and the hard work of understanding and working through your past to truly learn from it. A bit of a trigger warning: elements of the book deal with research on and with animals.

The story is creative, funny, very sad in places, and eminently believable (even with the afore-mentioned surprise). Rosemary doesn’t want sympathy, she just wants to work through things, moving backwards and forwards in the story to reveal the past (or her memories of the past) as she is recalling it and as life events are forcing those recollections and reckonings. Rosemary wants understanding – from her family, from the reader, and for herself.

Fowler does an exceptional job with story pacing, characters, timeline, and details. She has an excellent way with simile and with a sidebar comment that makes a reader pause and reflect on the meaning beyond the story.

Early on, Rosemary says: “An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.” Recently, in going through some family albums, I had some lovely nostalgic moments of funny times from childhood, but wondered whether, for some things, I remembered the actual event or just the story associated with the picture.

Later in the book: “When science becomes a religion, it stops being science.” In a world where, “Trust the Science” has become a belief that no longer requires (or in many cases encourages or even allows) critical thinking, that line between religion and science has indeed blurred.

My favourite simile (about Rosemary’s grandmother): “…conspiracy is folded into her DNA like egg whites into angel food cakes.” There were plenty of others, but that one stuck with me.

This is a book I highly recommend for its clever plot, well-paced story and turns of phrase, and for the thought-provoking ideas about family.

Fate: I’ll be passing this along to another reader to enjoy.

8 – a book with a female author
11 – a referral from a fellow book-clubber
13 – a book set somewhere I’ve never been (neither Indiana nor UC Davis)
19 – a book chose for me by a fellow book-clubber
25 – a new author to me
27 – a gift
35 – a book that has won a prize (PEN/Faulkner award for fiction 2014)

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