The only book by Karen Joy Fowler that I’d read previous to this was Wit’s End, which I enjoyed at the time but didn’t remember well at all, and The Jane Austen Book Club, which I found to be a fun read but quite light, not at all a heavy-hitter in the literary sense. So I was surprised to see her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves show up on so many awards and best-of lists. This, too, reads like a deceptively light novel, even a funny one, but it explores several deep issues through a compelling and highly readable story.
The main character is college student Rosemary, who is haunted by the disappearance of both her sister and her brother during her childhood. These traumas have turned her from an extremely talkative child to a very quiet young woman, but her first-person narrative voice is engaging, sharp and witty. Two stories unfold parallel to each other. One is the story of Rosemary’s unconventional childhood — which she, like nearly all children whose upbringing is unusual, assumed was fairly normal until she was old enough to be singled out and taunted by other children at school. The other is the story of Rosemary in the present, trying to piece together who she is in the present, especially in the absence of Fern, the sister whose presence defined her childhood and made it exceptional.
The novel keeps its focus clearly on Rosemary and her family, but, as the best novels do, uses that very specific story to explore much broader issues — in this case, the issue of animal research, animal testing, and cruelty to animals in general which, as Rosemary’s animal-rights-activist brother Lowell points out to her, is the ignored and unacknowledged underpinning of so much of human society. To keep the pages turning as quickly as they did for me in this book, while at the same time plunging into big and significant issues, requires an exceptionally gifted writer, and Fowler clearly is one.