‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’



After seeing a paperback version of the book priced so low it was almost a steal I couldn’t resist buying it. The book in question is ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler, a novel I have mixed feelings about. For a Man Booker prize shortlisted book with a tremendous critical reception in both the UK and the US, I feel somewhat disappointed by Fowler’s effort. I can acknowledge that it is better than a lot of the books churned out with the sole intention of becoming bestsellers for teens in this day and age, however I cannot get exited about this book or honestly say that I loved it. Despite the comments from both critics and the public seemingly stating anyone with a heart would be moved by this book, I feel as though it did not influence my emotions in any way. I am not an overly sentimental person, but if a book is sufficiently moving I have been known to shed a tear. To me, this was not a moving novel.

In terms of characters, one good thing I must acknowledge is that Fowler introduced Rosie’s family well, using a Thanksgiving meal as the perfect setting for this. And then she undid her own good work. Seventy-something pages into the book we are told that Rosie’s missing sister is…. a CHIMP! The hairy kind that like bananas. As an animal lover, I wouldn’t have minded this at all- if I’d known this from the off! Revealing that someone’s beloved sister is a chimp almost a third of the way through your novel can make things rather awkward. Nevertheless, we are assured that Fern’s chimpness is perfectly ordinary because there are several families currently bringing up chimps as their own children. Of course there are! More credit where credit is due, Fowler thought of every eventuality whilst writing this book. Even as a lover of animals, the idea of bathing a chimp went against all my beliefs regarding personal hygiene! Just when I thought the domestic chimp situation couldn’t become weirder, it was revealed that Fern liked to wear clothes, a concept I find both ridiculous and cruel. Aside from Fern, Rosie’s family as a whole were rather odd. It was around the time he dissected a dead frog for fun that I started to view her father as a potential serial killer. And I had to wonder why the entire family was so melodramatically worried about Fern the chimp after she ‘left’. They were so concerned that the entire story began to have a slightly satirical air. There was also he fact that Rosie’s parents were completely unconcerned when their five year old daughter began to behave like a chimp. When the protagonist’s elder brother Lowell left to locate the chimp, the bizarre family still seemed to be more concerned about Fern than him. Her parents were absolutely insufferable. They gave their children no privacy at all and were creepily odd. To further showcase her Mother’s unusual behaviour patterns, Rosie was actually surprised when the older woman became more upset over Lowell’s disappearance than Fern’s. Furthermore, Rosie herself was undeniably odd. She was dislikeable, with a rather ‘wet’ personality and was far too understanding when Lowell turned up to see her after being on the run for a decade. More to the point, why are we expected to believe that he has spent ten years chasing what was essentially the household pert and angered the FBI in the process?! The sentimental answer to that question would be that Lowell did so because of his brotherly love for Fern; in all honesty I still find his trip ludicrous. I basically managed to dislike every character in the book, even the chimpanzees!

In terms of the way the book was written, I have several points to make. I thought the idea of dual timelines as Rosie recounts the story was a clever concept that Fowler executed badly. I would find myself becoming confused over where in the timelines we were, as I felt the division between them was not emphasised enough. The book got to the point where reading it felt like a chore, although I can’t quite put my finger on the reason this occurred. I think part of the reason for this occurrence may have been the effort it took to decipher the timelines. I actually spotted a spelling mistake that was repeated twice. Admittedly the word in question was a hard one to spell, but it still seems silly that this went unnoticed twice. The descriptive passages also became vulgar in places, and were not particularly well-written. In all honesty, I would regard the book as a whole as averagely written and can’t understand the compliments its prose has received. Fowler attempts to pull on the readers heart strings but, in my case, ultimately failed to do so. One particularly nauseating example of this was her ridiculously fluffy description of a baby chimp. However, I must say that I did enjoy Fowler’s references to 90’s culture, including books and movies, as I felt they really set the scene for the setting. That being said, Fowler was later exposed as having done poor background research for the cultural aspects of the novel as I’m certain one of the movie quotes she included was incorrect.

With regards to the plot, it was simply far too sentimental for me. The twist provided an interesting change in Rosie’s viewpoint on the tale, but I would not regard it as overly spectacular or innovative. The little stories that Rosie recounts were sweet, although they soon grew taxing when one realised their collective purpose was simply to tell us, numerous times, about Rosie’s early childhood alongside Lowell and Fern. I have very mixed feelings about ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’- I appreciate that animal rights are an extremely important issue in modern society and detest animal testing, though I feel as though this book was a badly executed one with a good social message. The book’s conclusion rounded the storyline off nicely without managing to make me feel strongly about the book. That being said, the book did pick up slightly in its second half.

Rating- 7/10


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