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.