Tuesday, April 15, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Let me start by saying I loved this book! I first came across We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler in January when drafting my 2014 reading list post. At that time I had scoured Amazon and Barnes & Noble and countless other sites for a comprehensive list of books that would appeal to my reading tastes and as soon as I read the book’s synopsis I was hooked. In writing my review for this book I was torn on whether to share a pivotal plot point or twist in the book that I was aware of before picking up the book but which isn’t mentioned in the inside book jacket, though it is revealed relatively early in the story’s progression (about ¼ of the way through). I searched some online reviews to see how others approached the issue and it seems an even split with some sharing and some keeping mum. The truth is that the so-called twist is the key reason why I read this amazing book and knowing it did not in any way diminish the experience. This key fact informs and shapes everything about the novel and I couldn’t openly share my thoughts and feelings on Fowler’s gripping, touching and thought-provoking novel without discussing it. As such, please accept this spoiler alert to stop reading now if you want to go into it blind (don’t visit Amazon either because they lay it all out there at the top of the book’s order page).
Fowler’s original and unforgettable tale focuses on the Cooke family; mom, dad, son Lowell, and twin sisters Fern and Rosemary, our narrator. A great talker as a child, Rosemary shares how mom and dad had varying strategies in reducing her inexhaustible flow of words; mom’s suggestion was to advise when you think of two things to say, pick your favorite and only say that, whereas dad’s was to simply say “skip the beginning, start in the middle” which is where Rosemary begins her family’s tale. Rosemary has good reason for this strategy for she doesn’t want one key fact about her family to color your (our) early opinion of them.

The middle starts in the winter of 1996 when Rosemary is a 22-year old college student at UC Davis, by now her professor father has got a handle on his drinking and mom has recouped from her depression; as to Lowell and Fern, well, it’s been 10 and 17 years respectively since she’s seen either of her beloved siblings. We are slowly made privy to the Cooke’s dysfunctional family dynamic through increasingly revealing flashbacks, as we slowly look back at the fault line which divides their life into a before and after; namely the year 1979 when at the age of 5, Rosemary is sent off to her grandparents for the summer and returns to find Fern has disappeared from their home and family.

The early memories are sweet such as that of the three year old sisters sitting on either side of their mom as she reads them a book; “Fern loves being read to. She’s sleepy and quiet, pressing in as close to our mother as possible…I, on the other hand, am flinging myself about, unable to get comfortable, kicking across mom’s lap at Fern’s feet, trying to make her do something that will get her in trouble” or the two rambunctious girls twirling about the kitchen, anxious to get outside and play in the snow with their big brother. Typical childhood memories you’d think, but here’s the kicker, you see Fern is a chimpanzee, which is the why behind starting our tale in the middle for as Rosemary eloquently states “I wanted you to see how it really was. I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already, you aren’t thinking of her as my sister…Until Fern’s expulsion … she was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half and I loved her as a sister.”

Therein lies the truth of our tale; as part of a study on animal behavior, her parents had raised Rosemary and Fern from infancy to age 5 as twin sisters. Fern was taught sign language and dressed in human clothes and believed she was human, typical of home-raised chimps, but what no one had anticipated was that the mirroring went both ways and Rosemary developed some of her sister’s habits, having to be reminded by her mother to stay upright (“no loping through the snow on my hands and feet”) which is of course the root of her “monkey-girl” kindergarten moniker. With that essential truth revealed, Rosemary then recounts the catastrophic consequences of Fern’s absence on her family; her father’s drinking, her mother’s depression which is only made worse when Lowell runs away from home and becomes an animal right’s activist with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and ends up wanted by the FBI.

But what of Fern you ask? Well after a trip to the beginning, we return to the middle, and as Lowell takes an unexpected step out of the shadows, Rosemary will have to rely on her big brother’s shared truth as well as taking an honest and brave look in the mirror in order to dig through her own buried memories to find the answers she's looking for.

I’ll reiterate once again how much I loved this beautiful book. Its poignant tale might deal with a chimpanzee but in truth it speaks to our own humanity. As part of Rosemary’s research, Fowler included accounts of real cross-fostered chimps including that of Washoe, who was the first nonhuman ever to learn American sign-language. Roger Fouts worked with her as a grad student and devoted his life to her protection, he wisely stated “she taught him that in the phrase human being, the word being is much more important than the word human.” Through Rosemary and Fern and the Cooke family, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves movingly conveys the incredible bond that can exist between humans and animals; a bond which transcends species or barriers of communication, for love and compassion have a language all their own.

Not only is Fowler’s tale riveting from start to finish with a heartwarming look at the relationship between animals and humans but in its unique perspective it also delves into the complex and at times controversial subject of animal testing. As an animal lover I’ll admit that some parts of the book were heartbreaking to read. I take heart in the fact that parts of the book are based at a time in our history when tests inflicted on animal subjects in the name of science were accepted as the norm by both the scientific community and society as a whole, though I'm under no misconception that we don't still have a long ways to go as regards to current day practices.

Sadly, while some protections are in place today that improve the standard of care due some animals, the fact remains that testing isn’t challenged and it seems that as long as these animals have adequate food, water and shelter, they are still left to suffer and die in research facilities throughout the U.S. and not always in the hopes of finding a cure for cancer, sometimes it’s just to improve cosmetics. The choice shouldn’t be between advancing science and torturing animals; there’s got to be a better way and a better choice. In a civilized society, a balance must be struck between scientific progress and maintaining one of the key things that sets us apart from animals, a conscience; for the life of every being – human or otherwise – has value and that must be our guiding force.

Fowler’s writing and character development were exceptional; as each character came to life on the page. None were perfect, all (both human and animal) had foibles but that is just one of the many things that make us so alike. I felt for Rosemary’s sense of isolation and confused sense of self, but I must say it was Fern whom even in absence captured my heart. The tale's apt portrayal of sibling love and rivalry perfectly captured that fragile family dynamic and its myriad of contradictory feelings.

What else can I say? Given the length of this review, I’m guessing I’ve already said too much. I’ll end by simply making a heartfelt request that you read this book. As it says on the book jacket, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will break your heart and then steal it away.