We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel
By Karen Joy Fowler
310 pp. Plume Books. $16.00
In an old black-and-white photo I am standing beside my older sister. She is perhaps 10 years old. I, at age three, am not looking into the camera, but at my sister. She stands with one foot at an angle; I do, too. She stands with one knee slightly bent; I do, too. Her hands are at her side; so are mine. In my three-year-old heart I knew I looked just like her.
I didn’t. Not at all.
However, in that picture, there is a sense of what it means to be a sister. Or as one sister in Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel puts it, “We’re the same, you and I.” Even though we’re different.
Just how the sisters We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are different doesn’t become entirely clear until about a third of the way through the book–so if you want to read the novel as it was written, without knowing, avert your eyes right now.
The story begins with Rosemary, a college student in California, which is about as far away as she can get from her family in Indiana. Her new dorm mates are eager to tell each other the ways in which their families are dysfunctional. Rosemary is silent, but in a series of flashbacks we learn that she once had an older brother, Lowell, and a sister, Fern, who was the same age as she. Both are gone.
Fern, we ultimately discover, was a chimpanzee. She and Rosemary were raised together from birth until age five as an experiment by their father, a psychology professor at the University of Indiana. (The story has some basis in fact: in the 1930s, a University of Indiana professor had conducted a similar experiment, raising a chimpanzee alongside his son, Donald. That experiment lasted only nine months, ending possibly because Donald was taking on more chimp-like behaviors than predicted.)
But Fowler’s fictional chimpanzee was a true member of the family for years. Fern played and learned alongside her brother and sister. We see them baking cookies, building snowmen, and being read to. The parents had made a commitment to raise Fern exactly as they were raising Rosemary. Then suddenly, when the sisters were five years old, Rosemary returned from a week-long visit to their grandparents’ home to find Fern gone. The commitment had been broken.
There is grief, of course. But there’s also a lifelong residue of confusion, resentment and guilt. And there’s anger: Rosemary’s brother leaves home to become an activist for the Animal Liberation Front. The unraveling of the family raises questions not only about animal rights but about sibling relationships, about how we share ideas and feelings, about how we delude ourselves and others–and, most of all, about what it means to be different but forever alike.
Reviewed by Sally Nurss