Saturday, September 20, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

Fowler's Booker-nominated novel begins in the middle of the story. Rosemary Cooke narrates what seems to be a pretty typical family drama full of dysfunction and estrangement. But about 75 pages in, we learn something about her family - specifically, about her sister Fern - that puts everything in a different light. Everything afterward revolves around this fact that we learn and creates most of what is fascinating in the story. But it's a spoiler, so you're just going to have to trust me on that.

Which is the central problem with reviewing this novel. You can't tell everyone the single most interesting thing about it, the thing that will actually make them want to read it. A couple of my coworkers recommended it to me, enthusiastically, which is what made me interested, but it was reading the spoiler in a review that made me actually pick it up. And yet, it would have been a better reading experience had I not known the spoiler, because I spent the first 75 pages wondering when I would learn this thing I already knew.

Spoilers aside, there are some great things about it that I can tell you. Rosemary grew up with a brother and a sister and has seen neither of them in many years, though the reasons why are only revealed later. She is just the sort of quirky narrator I like. As a child, she never stopped talking, and drove everyone around her bananas. They had to play a sort of game with her in which for every three things she thought of, she had to choose just one to say out loud. She kept changing this ratio until, as an adult, she kept pretty much everything inside. In college, which is where the story begins (though keep in mind it's the middle of the story), she befriends a woman named Harlow when they are arrested together. This unlikely friendship comes at a crucial point in Rosemary's life, and Harlow gets drawn into the drama of the Cooke family in a pretty serious way.

When Rosemary thinks back to her childhood - the beginning of the story - she is troubled by her faulty memory. It is true that our memories are inherently unreliable and Rosemary knows this and tries to decipher her memories and figure out which ones are true and which are just smokescreens hiding the real ones.

"Why are there so many scenes I remember from impossible vantage points, so many things I picture from above, as if I'd climbed the curtains and was looking down on my family? And why is there one thing that I remember distinctly, living color and surround-sound, but believe with all my heart never occurred?"

She is especially aware of the misleading nature of our memories because her dad was a scientist. In fact, there are many many references to scientific studies throughout her story. Even when thinking about the children's story Charlotte's Web, she associates it with studies in which spiders were drugged and photos taken of the webs they spun while under the influence.

Although this isn't an issue novel, it does bring up some particular issues that are not usually tackled in the mainstream media and focuses on a particular fringe in a way that is actually fairly sympathetic. It also happens to be something about which I have strong feelings, so I was especially intrigued and appreciative of how Fowler handled it. I'm sorry to be so vague, but again, spoilers. I just want to emphasize how thoughtful this novel is.

This would be a great novel for a book group discussion, if you can manage to convince people to read it without knowing the most interesting aspects of it. For me, it was enough to have some vague but enthusiastic recommendations from other people. Some may be convinced to pick it up because it was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. But don't be daunted - it's not one of those long, dry, inaccessible award-winners. It's an easy 300 pages that will hold your interest throughout. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes good fiction and especially to those looking for something unusual.

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