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We are all completely beside ourselves - book review and discussion points

Updated on July 28, 2015

Synopsis

As a young child Rosemary is a happy, vivacious, talkative girl who loves her sister, Fern and most of all her brother, Lowell, passionately. However, life changes dramatically for Rosemary when she is sent away to stay with her grandparents for a week and returns home to find that her sister has disappeared and her mother is distraught. The mystery and intrigue heighten when seven years later Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, also disappears.

As a result of the tragedies she experiences, Rosemary transforms from a talkative, happy child into a silent, secretive girl with no friends and a family that refuses to discuss its experiences. Rosemary finds that she must deal with her grief, guilt and confused emotions alone.

The story unfolds through the personal narrative of Rosemary as she looks back on her childhood and adolescence. Slowly we learn the devastating consequences the disappearance of Fern has had on the whole family. Rosemary’s mother has a breakdown and recedes from family life, whilst her father becomes an alcoholic. Rosemary’s beloved brother is we learn now an active member of the Animal Liberation Front and is wanted by the FBI. Rosemary herself appears to have been left to fend for herself and finally goes off the rails when she moves away to college and meets the impetuous Harlow.

Fowler is a master story teller and whilst she deals with hard hitting subject matter she also manages to infuse her narrative with dark humour and suspense. She lulls the reader into a false sense of security, a complacency of the path the story is taking and then hits out with a revelation that leaves the unsuspecting reader reeling from its force.

I would highly recommend this book as a book/reading group choice. It is thought provoking, atmospheric, funny and heart breaking and will provide a group with ample discussion points. Fowler has helpfully supplied topics for reading group discussions at the end of the book and further discussion points are included in this article.

Excerpt

As part of leaving Bloomington for college and my brand-new start, I’d made a decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern. Back in those college days, I never spoke of her and seldom thought of her. If anyone asked about my family, I admitted to two parents, still married and one brother, older, who travelled a lot. Not mentioning Fern was first a decision, and later a habit, hard and painful even now to break. Even now, way off in 2012, I can’t abide someone else bringing her up. I have to ease into it. I have to choose my moment.

Though I was only five when she disappeared from my life, I do remember her. I remember her sharply – her smell and touch, scattered images of her face, her ears, her chin, her eyes. Her arms, her feet, her fingers. But I don’t remember her fully, not the way Lowell does.

Book group discussion topics (contains spoilers)

  1. "Most home-raised chimps, when asked to sort photographs into piles of chimps and humans, make only the one mistake of putting their own picture into the human pile. This is exactly what Fern did," Rosemary recalls. "What seems not to have been anticipated was my own confusion." In what ways were Rosemary’s personality and mannerisms influenced by her upbringing with Fern? What implications did this have for her socially when she went to school and then college?
  2. In her review of the novel Liz Jensen states that Fowler’s work is not didactic. Fowler covers topics such as animal rights, human psychology and anthropomorphism do you think that she manages to include these topics without being didactic?
  3. Fowler carried out a great deal of research into chimpanzee behaviour and research projects before writing this novel, does her incorporation of this information into her novel interrupt the flow of the story or do you think it adds to the credibility of the narrative?
  4. In the prologue Rosemary tells us that when she wanted her father to stay with her longer at bedtime she would tell him that she had something say, ‘tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are’ her father would tell her to ‘Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.’ The novel then proceeds to break the conventions of beginning, middle and end by starting in the middle, skipping to the middle of the beginning and from thereon continuing in fragmented form. Does this interrupted form of narrative work or would you have preferred Fowler to conform to a linear and chronological narrative?
  5. Did you feel cheated by Rosemary’s revelation in Part 2, chapter 5 that Fern was a chimpanzee after you had invested so heavily in the novel, or did you admire Fowler’s ingenuity and perhaps feel that it added a more interesting dimension?
  6. Rosemary tells the reader that not all of the memories she has of her childhood are reliable and how she often remembers experiencing something isn’t necessarily how it happened, does this admission lead to a loss of credibility in the narrative?
  7. Following the loss of Fern, Rosemary describes her mother as vaporous, she only emerged from her bedroom at night, stopped combing her hair, hardly ate and did not get dressed, was her reaction to the loss of Fern reasonable?
  8. Rosemary spends her entire life weighed down by guilt of Fern’s disappearance. Was this guilt justified? If so, did Rosemary atone for her behaviour by caring for Fern with her mother in adult life?
  9. What are the similarities between the characters of Fern and Harlow? Was Harlow a true friend to Rosemary?
  10. Rosemary and her mother have a plan to publish the journals as a children’s book the profits of which will go to the chimp centre. Rosemary hopes that by going on tour she can use Fern’s influence to raise awareness of animal rights. However she ends the chapter by saying ‘That’s the plan. That was the plan.’ Chapter 7 then goes on to describe Lowell’s predicament and the great quantities of money needed to defend him in court. What do you think the money is ultimately used for? What do you think would be the fair way to use the money?

Karen Joy Fowler at the 2013 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States
Karen Joy Fowler at the 2013 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States | Source

About the author

Karen Joy Fowler is an American author best known for her blockbuster novel The Jane Austen Book Club. Born in 1950 in Bloomington, Indiana her father was an Indiana University professor who studied animal behaviour. Karen Joy Fowler went on to attend the University of California where she majored in Political Science. Her first novel Sarah Canary was published in 1991 and Fowler has described it as a cross between science fiction and mainstream depending on the reader. Following her research for We are all completely beside ourselves she was inspired to write the short story What I didn’t see which went on to win the Nebula Award in 2003.

She is the co-founder of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and the current president of the Clarion Foundation (also known as Clarion San Diego).

More books and short stories by the author

Novels:

Sarah Canary (1991)

The War of the Roses (1991)

The Sweetheart Season (1996

Sister Noon (2001)

The Jane Austen Book Club (2004)

Wit's End (Putnam, 2008)

Short story collections:

Artificial Things (1986)

Black Glass (1997)

What I didn't see and other stories (2010)

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