Karen Joy Fowler is an author with range. The Jane Austen Book Club. Sarah Canary (Pacific Northwest, 1873). Sister Noon (Gilded Age, spinster and charity work in San Francisco). Now, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a novel about a family who raises a chimp as a child.
Unfortunately, by telling you the premise of the book, I give nothing away. The flap copy, the back jacket tell you this. And it’s a mistake. Because if you just picked up the book and began reading, it would take you until you were about 1/3 of the way through before you realized you were reading about a chimp.
In her New York Times review of the book, Barbara Kingsolver expresses the same frustration.
To experience this novel exactly as the author intended, a reader should avoid the flap copy and everything else written about it. Including this review. The last writers to be unscathed by spoilers were probably the Victorians, who pounded out the likes of “Great Expectations” in weekly, serialized installments. No reviewer could blow the surprise of a convict benefactor or Miss Havisham’s cobwebby cake when these were yet unwritten. But in modern times, literary fiction presents a conundrum: The more craftily constructed its suspense, the more it tempts its advocates — in the interest of airtime — to reach into a serious tale and pull out something resembling a tabloid headline. Such as: “Girl and Chimp Twinned at Birth in Psychological Experiment.” That’s the big reveal in Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” a novel so readably juicy and surreptitiously smart, it deserves all the attention it can get.
In the 1970s, Indiana University Professor Cooke and his wife bring two new members into their family simultaneously: Rosemary and Fern. Rosemary is their biological daughter. Fern is adopted; she was the child of a chimpanzee slaughtered by poachers in Africa. Rosemary narrates the story, beginning in the middle. Along the way, Rosemary and author Fowler raise hugely disturbing questions about the ethical treatment of non-human animals in our society. Rosemary remembers being sent away by her family at age five; when she returned, Fern was gone. Where she went and why is the puzzle at the heart of Rosemary’s story and Fowler’s novel.
IU Sample Gates. GO HOOSIERS
Ultimately, it’s a novel about the truths we tell ourselves. The issues we believe in more than self-preservation. Memory, family, transformation, joy and grief.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves won the Pen/Faulkner Award for 2014, and was recently short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It will be the topic of discussion at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning’s Brown Bag Book Club the weeks of October 30 and November 6. By the way, The Carnegie Center is the recipient of this year’s Kentucky Governor’s Award for the Arts. Here’s a very interesting article with Ms. Fowler about her father’s career as an animal behavioralist and some of her thoughts on the novel: http://karenjoyfowler.com/books/we-are-all-completely-beside-ourselves-qa/
I would have a lot of fun with this book for book club night and for the menu, there is no question I would go as vegan as possible.
Golden Raisins mixed with peanuts
Peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches. Grilled. Yummy.
Banana Cream Pie
You know where I’m going don’t you?