Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

WeAreAllCompletely_paperback FowlerKaren Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves recently won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

It was on my reading list last year.

Finally I read it.

It is spellbinding.

Rosemary, a psychologist’s daughter who grows up in Bloomington, Indiana, is the narrator of this transcendent coming-of-age novel.   For the first five years of her life, Rosemary is raised with a chimp, Fern, whom she and her older brother, Lowell, regard as their sister.  One day Fern disappears; Rosemary never understands why. Finally, as a college student, she  explores the mystery of why Fern was sent away.

I love novels about apes, though most fall in the category of the romance-with-monster novels, i.e., Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape and one of the novels in Jane Gaskell’s Atlan series.  I am also very fond of Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Distant Planets, in which a marine biologist falls in love with a dolphin.

Fowler’s book is not a romance: it is a novel about family.  It is also about animals and human beings and their similarities and differences (mainly linguistic). It could have been predicted that I would love this book.

It is one of the two best contemporary novels I have read this year, the other being D. J. Taylor’s Ask Alice.

Fowler is an eclectic writer of science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction.  She is best known for The Jane Austen Book Club, but is also the author of a brilliant science fiction novel, Sarah Canary, and The Sweetheart Season, a charming literary novel about a women’s baseball team at a cereal factory in the wake of World War II.  Fowler is an SF celebrity:  she has won two World Fantasy Awards, a Nebula award, and is the co-founder of the James Tiptree, Jr.  Award for science fiction or fantasy that “expands or explores our understanding of gender.”

And now the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Rosemary looks back over her life and tells her story.  In the ’90s, as a student at The University of California-Davis, she came to grips with the puzzle of the loss of Fern.  But not until page 76 (in the e-book) does she reveal that Fern was a chimp.

Some of you may have figured that out already.  Others may feel it was irritatingly coy of me to have withheld Fern’s essential simian-ness for so long.

In my defense, I had my reasons.  I spent the first fifteen years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a chimpanzee.  I had to move halfway across the country in order to leave that fact behind.  It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone.

Fowler has written a stunning novel. She tells us the history of cross-raised chimpanzees.  There were a few families in the U.S. in the 20th century raising chimpanzees with human beings.  In the 1930s, when the Kelloggs raised a chimp with their child, their purpose was “to compare and contrast developing abilities, linguistic and otherwise.”  Rosemary’s father says his purpose was the same, though Rosemary is skeptical, since the experiments ruined the Kelloggs’ credibility.  As a baby Rosemary was twinned with Fern, who came to live them when she was a month old.  They were constantly tested by graduate students, and both very much liked the attention.  Fern often out-performed Rosemary.

So what happened?  Their parents tell Rosemary and Lowell that Fern was sent to a farm.  When Lowell runs away at 18, he leaves a note:  Fern was not sent to a farm.  Lowell becomes an Animal Liberation Front activist, but he is not able to free Fern from a lab.

Fowler’s moving novel is never sentimental, even as we learn terrible truths.  She lightens it up with a running gag about a suitcase misplaced by the airline.  In the suitcase are her mother’s journals about raising Rosemary and Fern; Rosemary does not want to read them.  The wrong suitcase is delivered to her, and in it is a ventriloquist’s dummy, Madame DeFarge, which Rosemary and her friend take to a number of bars.

Fowler also writes a catalogue of the fates of other cross-fostered chimps, and it is every bit as moving as the catalogue of the dead in The Iliad.

Maybelle (born in 1965) and Salome (1971) both died of a severe diarrhea that developed within days of their respective families’ going on vacation and leaving them behind.  No underlying physical condition for the diarrhea was found in either case.


After his return to a resarech facility, Ally (born 1969) also developed a life-threatening diarrhea.  He pulled out his own hair and lost the use of one arm, but none of these things killed him.  There are rumors, unsubstantiated, that he died in the 1980s in the medical labs, victim of an experimental but fatal dose of insecticide.

The lives of Rosemary and Lowell are eerily parallel at times to Fern’s in a lab:  Rosemary is jailed briefly with an impulsive friend, and Lowell is pursued by the FBI for animal rights “terrorism.”  In the end, while the detached father and angry brother prove ineffective,  Rosemary and her mother become heroines.  And so in some ways this is a feminist novel.

It is an utterly perfect little book.

There are still some gems in contemporary fiction.

Read this!

One thought on “Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s