I’m going to start at the beginning, even though Karen Joy Fowler takes great pains not to. To start at the beginning, her narrator, Rosemary Cooke rightly points out, is to prejudice the reader. It is, I guess, also to spoil, so don’t read any further if you don’t want any spoilers. This book, however, has been out since 2013, so I kind of feel like the statute of limitations is near its end for the whole spoilage thing.
Also? I think the “spoiler” aspect is a cheat. I suspect it exists because Karen Joy Fowler thinks you’re an asshole.
I’m going to have faith in your humanity. I’m going to believe in your capacity for empathy. I’m going to assume that you’re a science fiction nerd like I am–far more willing to emotionally invest in a sympathetic non-human character than a dysfunctional human any day.
Oops, did I say non-human? Shhhhhhhhhh.
Karen Joy Fowler assumes you’re picking up this book after having read her far more famous one, The Jane Austen Book Club. She figures that you regularly read things on the New York Times Bestseller list and that you probably have the imagination of a wet gym sock. And about that much capacity for empathy.
So she doesn’t trust you to love Fern. Fern is Rosemary’s sister. Rosemary is the narrator of the book and Fern is mysteriously absent in an aching empty hole of a way at the start of the book (which is chronologically in the middle of the story.) Fern, you understand right away, was sent AWAY. There is silence around Fern–Fern and Rosemary’s older brother, who also disappeared. The silence is heavy in they way of literary novels, so heart-breakingly heavy, and Rosemary is muted with the weight of Fern’s absence.
Rosemary is alone, SO VERY alone, and the epitome of unreliable. Her father was a psychologist so she questions reality and the nature of memories and the brain constantly.
Starting in the middle may mean the reader may have more sympathy for Fern, but I think you end up with a whole lot LESS for Rosemary.
Thing is, Fern is a chimpanzee.
Rosemary, meanwhile, is an asshole.
In fact, Rosemary is a self-absorbed asshole for pretty much the entire book and like a lot of literary books, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, is about the mostly successful (but-not-entirely-because-aren’t-we-all-just-fallible-people) redemption of said assholery.
The only thing that made all of the angst and self-discovery worth is was Fern, and Fern’s ending.
If I were writing this book, I would have written about Fern. I would have started at the beginning and assumed that you would fall in love with Fern and believe her to be your twin sister. Maybe that’s not possible for most people.
Most people are assholes.
You probably can’t tell from this review that I cried at the end of this book. I did, but I wasn’t crying for any of the people in it. I cried because Fern gets a decent ending–far, far better than I expected given how assholish the human race is as a whole–and that made me happy. Look, humanity doesn’t entirely suck! There are moments of grace and decency. Hand me a Kleenex!
This is why I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. I like chimpanzees WAY better than people.