Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

waacboIt is difficult to write about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without revealing a key piece of plot information. However, Karen Joy Fowler managed to get to page 77 of her novel without letting it slip, so I can hopefully get to the end of a blog post with the secret intact. This is more than some professional reviews – and indeed some cover art on various editions – have done, which has caused a bit of a stir with readers. I have no particular desire to fan the flames of controversy any further.

We meet Rosemary Cooke in the middle of her story. She’s at college, and a girl called Harlow is kicking off in the canteen, chucking plates around, all that sort of thing. Rosemary, quiet Rosemary, stands up and starts to join in. Both are arrested, and a peculiar friendship is formed.

A lot of things in Rosemary’s life is peculiar, not least her family life and upbringing. For one, she tells us that she has transformed from someone who barely stopped talking whereas now she is almost silent? Why did that happen? Why is there such a connection between Rosemary and troublesome Harlow? To understand that, Rosemary must take us back to the beginning of her story, which is with her family in Indiana. She lived with her parents – her father was a scientist – and her siblings, brother Lowell and sister Fern. There is also an extended family of graduate students and researchers that worked with her dad and spent a lot of time around the house. She fell in a childish sort of love with one called Matt.

One day, when she was five, she was sent to stay with her grandparents for a few days, and when she came back, her sister had disappeared. This, understandably, caused profound damage to the family, with Rosemary’s mother sinking into depression and for a long time barely getting out of bed. Lowell, who had loved Fern deeply, starts acting out and causing trouble. Rosemary is just lost, and uncomprehending. Fast forward six or so years, and Lowell disappears too. It transpires that he has found out what happened to Fern and has set off on a lone crusade to find her – if she is still alive.

So Rosemary is now away at college, having spent years trying not to think about her sister and her brother, when just as she finds herself in this odd friendship with Harlow, Lowell pops up again. She can no longer hide from the truth of what happened all those years ago, and she must confront both the child she was and the adult she has become.

If you’ve already read the book, then you’ll realise that this brief explanation leaves quite staggeringly gaping holes, which I can’t fill in without revealing the thing-that-I-mustn’t-say. What I can say is this: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is unlike any book I have read in some time. It felt fresh and original, and Fowler is adept at making the reader reevaluate what it means to be part of a family. Written in the first person, Rosemary’s unique voice carried me along wonderfully. I’m a bit funny about first person narration; I think that in unskilled hands it can sound clunky and forced, and this book was neither of these things as is to be expected from a writer of Fowler’s experience and caliber.

It is an extremely well-written book; a really Good book, if you know what I mean. If I had any problems with it, it’s that I think the narrative voice calls for long sittings. With a full time job and a husband and a nearly-three year old and all the rest, I don’t often get hours to sit and read uninterrupted. I read on the bus to work, in a half hour here and there while the Small Girl is absorbed in Peppa Pig, in bed for a short time before I fall asleep. Stopping and starting and picking up and picking down is not the best way to read this book, and I think my enjoyment of it suffered as a result. If you’re planning to read this book – and if quirky family sagas are your thing, then you surely should – then heed this advice: get yourself into your comfiest chair, have some snacks on hand, and just read. I think that it’s the only way to truly get the most of this novel.

Karen Joy Fowler: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2014 edn) ISBN 978184668966, RRP £7.99

5 comments on “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

  1. Annecdotist
    November 14, 2014

    I was delighted to find your review, having just torn myself from this novel to knuckle down to a bit of work on the computer. I’m also wondering how I review it as it was the revelation of the secret in another review that drew me to the novel. But it’s much deeper than that, and a glorious way to get into the depth of love and rivalry between siblings. Totally agree with your recommendations.

  2. Helen
    November 14, 2014

    Hi, I really enjoyed this review – thank you for taking the time to write about the book so carefully. My own version was much briefer because I was racing through it for my “Booker challenge”, and I’m not sure I managed to do it without spoilers. It’s interesting, actually, retelling it without that crucial plot point, because it makes it sound like a very different book – really, it’s one you just have to read, isn’t it?
    And I’m right with you on its needing committed reading time – my three-and-a-half-year-old also makes reading hard, so I zipped through it while he was at playgroup and the baby was asleep. I did find it was a pretty quick read so that dedicated time paid off.

  3. Jackie
    November 14, 2014

    It sounds as though Harlow might also like Peppa Pig. I think you did a great job of explaining what this novel is about without revealing any secrets. You’ve piqued my curiosity and I’m sure I’ll be looking for this book at the library.

  4. Leena
    November 19, 2014

    Here’s another one whose interest was piqued. Thanks for this review, Kirsty – sounds like a must read🙂 For some reason, before reading your review, I had a very different idea of this novel… probably on the basis of the title alone, I had decided it isn’t something I might be interested in. Funny how that happens sometimes.

  5. Pingback: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie | Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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