Book Reviews

Currently showing posts tagged Family

  • A Review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves By Karen Joy Fowler (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2013)

    By Claire Martin, Interviews Editor

    In the grand scheme of sibling-driven stories in the literary world, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves stands out with an imaginative framework that very few others can boast. Released in 2013 by writer Karen Joy Fowler (The Jane Austen Book Club, Wit’s End) the novel went on to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2014. It continues to gain attention for its stark originality, which earned it a place on the New York Times bestseller list.  

    The Cooke family is brought to life through Rosemary, narrator and daughter of the group. She’s found herself in college at the University of California in Davis where she recounts the quirks of growing up with a family of five in the late 1970s. Her parents, both mild-mannered people, raised their three children in the midst of the academic environment her father worked in. Aside from Rosemary there was Lowell, the oldest son with a radical edge. But most notably there was Fern, the youngest sister and beacon of the bunch. Rosemary recalls Fern being unruly, boisterous, and wildly close to her. Rosemary notes, “Once upon a time there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and father who’d promised to love them both exactly the same,” but as tales of families often conclude, it’s rare that this sentiment is true.

    Following the journey of the two sisters through Rosemary’s hazy memories remains madly captivating, as if each remembrance is the divulgence of a tightly held secret. Fern’s often unpredictable behavior guides Rosemary through her toddler years both in moments of youthful joy, such as winning the attention of the students working for their father, and deep confusion, which comes with Fern relentlessly outperforming Rosemary. However, this is all told under the looming pretense that Fern disappears when Rosemary is only five years old, a pivot that seems to shake the four remaining family members to a place from which no one can recover. But after growing to love Fern deeply and then losing her, Rosemary reveals a plot-splitting piece of information.  

    Fern is a chimpanzee. Her father’s lab adopted a young Fern around the time Rosemary was born, kicking off five years of close watching and experimentation. By the time Fern’s origins are revealed, there is already a vibrant picture of the Cooke family, siblings, parents, scientists and all. There has been an introduction to all of the absurdities and pitfalls of this family, like any other group, so with the presentation of an inter-species sisterhood, it is comically easy to go along with.

    “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.” Through repeated moments of immense intimacy, Rosemary’s remembrance brings Fern to life with equal parts delight, fascination, and remorse. They read like a series of foggy instances, each one more gripping than the last.  

    Using a primate, Fowler animates siblinghood with astonishing accuracy and poise. Rosemary aptly comments, “In the phrase ’human being,’ the word ‘being’ is much more important than the word ‘human.’” This novel is an endlessly entertaining look into our own sense of being, our capacity for personal relationships and natural ability to grow close. Reliably funny and unassumingly sweet, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is worth savoring every sentence.


    Claire Martin is studying Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago.  You can find her working on creative essays, wandering through Printer’s Row after hours, and becoming fully nocturnal.

  • A Review of I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

    by Marygrace Shumann, Contributing Editor

    Told from alternating perspectives, I’ll Give You The Sun is a poignant character study on twins Jude and Noah as they deal with the intricacies of self-worth, death, and love.

    Noah’s sections are told before their mother passes away in a car crash. Throughout his sections, Noah begins to having feelings for a boy named Bryan while, at the same time, growing apart from his twin sister, Jude. This sort of cosmic connection that Noah himself describes with, “Unlike most everyone else on earth, from the very first cells of us, we were together, we came here together. This is why no one hardly notices that Jude does most of the talking for both of us, why we can only play piano with all four of our hands on the keyboard and not at all alone, why we can never do Rochambeau because not once in thirteen years have we chosen differently,” is broken as Noah’s love and understanding for art brings him closer to their mother, while Jude (who doesn’t feel her art is as worthy as Noah’s) becomes jealous of their connection. Throughout his sections, Noah is trying to get into a prestigious art school. As he learns more about himself as an artist, Noah begins to draw in his head, allowing the reader to merge the gap between art and artist. He describes his own process saying, “When I draw it, I’m going to make my skin see-through and what you’ll see is that all the animals in the zoo of me have broken out of their cages.” The novel itself breathes like a painting, a sculpture, a sketch. The descriptions are not only vivid, but both lifelike and mystical. Noah’s sections in particular are bursting with imagery that feels unworldly and yet, like a beautiful painting, so anchored to reality. The style Nelson takes allows us to better understand that line between what we feel and what is, which rings particularly true as both Noah and Jude begin to face the harsher realities of life.

    While in Noah’s sections, Jude is belligerent and rebellious, in her own section, years after their mother’s passing, we find Jude to be more reserved. Attending the art school her brother felt was destined for him after she destroyed his application, Jude is filled with an unspeakable guilt. Everything she tries to make is destroyed, Jude believes, by the ghost of her mother. While Noah’s sections are filled with vibrant imagery—emotions described with color, sounds described with scene—Jude’s sections deal closely with her ability to put into words both her own feelings, and the feelings of those around her. Noah paints, but Jude is more concerned with making a sculpture. Throughout her sections, Jude wants to make something solid, something she believes won’t break. This is shown through a more matter-of-fact style of writing. As Jude falls for a boy her brother painted years before, and accidentally becomes the student of the man her mother was having an affair with, Jude begins to understand the lines between forgiving yourself and forgiving others. As she grapples for answers, Jude’s ultimate character growth comes in her ability to let things be, let things break, and let things come back together on their own. “Because who knows?” she says, “Who knows anything? Who knows who's pulling the strings? Or what is? Or how? Who knows if destiny is just how you tell yourself the story of your life?” As Jude finally forgives herself for what she did to her brother, she gives her brother the freedom to confess to her the guilt he feels surrounding their mother’s death. It is this freedom of confession that finally allows Jude to understand the middleground and see things less as a plan to follow through with, and moreso as something messy, the breathing nature of relationships and self.

    Told with a vibrancy and emotional maturation seldomly found in Young Adult fiction, Nelson weaves a haunting and meaningful story about family and self-discovery.


    Marygrace Schumann, lesbian mother of the team, is a senior at Columbia College Chicago studying Fiction Writing. When she’s not writing, it’s all about Cheesie’s and serenading her friends with ’80s music.