We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves // by Karen Joy Fowler


//published 2013//

This book was first brought to my attention by Carol’s review over on Reading, Writing & Riesling, so many thanks!!

This unique story centers on Rosemary – who is also our narrator (past tense, thank goodness!) – and her family.  Rosemary tells us in her introduction that she is going to start from the middle of her story and work out from there, and the ploy works brilliantly, pulling the reader into her life as she gives us gentle teasers of her past in a way that is thoroughly engaging.

This is a book that is nearly impossible to review, I think, without spoilers.  Suffice to say here that while I found the story engrossing, I was conflicted about the “message” that story told.  One of the foundational premises is one that does not sit completely comfortably with me.  So while I recommend the story, I am not sure I can recommend the book, if that makes any sense.

Still, the writing was strong, and although the ending was bittersweet (and a bit open-ended), I found that my genuine affection for Rosemary and my interest in her life carried me through the book to its conclusion, and left me determined to find more of Fowler’s books.

For spoiler-filled thoughts, see  below!



Okay, short version:  In the beginning of the story, we find out that Rosemary  had a sister during her childhood, and as things unfold we know that Fern disappeared/was taken/is missing.  Later, we find that Fern was not, in fact, human, but was a chimpanzee who was raised alongside of Rosemary as part of a social experiment to raise a chimp as/concurrently with a human child.  However, I don’t think chimpanzees are human, and I don’t think that we should treat them as humans.  This doesn’t mean that I believe they should be used and abused in experiments and random testing, but I was never comfortable with Rosemary’s assertion that Fern was her sister, or the concept that her parents could have loved a chimp as much as their own human daughter.  While the story was poignant and had a great deal of depth, the ending really just turned into a weird cry for “justice” for chimpanzees, as well as a sweeping statement against all animal testing, all large farms, and basically anything else that keeps animals in captivity.  It got a little extreme for me.  I have grown up in a farming community and don’t really appreciate the misrepresentation that construes all farms as evil places that squeeze animals into tiny stalls and never let them see grass or sunshine.  While true in some instances, it just isn’t the way that most agriculture happens.

I don’t believe in evolution and don’t believe that we are descendants of apes and don’t believe that chimps are our “brethren” or any other such nonsense.  The idea that Rosemary’s family could love Fern and treat her the same way that would have an adopted human baby is just weird and creepy to me.

The importance of eliminating animal cruelty and bizarre animal testing is not lost on me.  I would never condone the purposeful mistreatment of animals.  However, animals are not human, and I do not believe that animals should be granted the same exact rights and protections that we give humans.  Rosemary’s horror that Fern could be owned and sold (and her mental equating of that to owning and selling humans) was a bit over the top for me.

Still.  A good story and an emotional one that definitely kept me turning the pages.  While I may not have agreed with its core value, the book did an excellent job of raising questions and conversation – I can see this being a great book for a book club or other situation where people are reading and discussing together.