Before you go any further in reading this review, it’s important for you to know that this novel contains a huge, unprecedented twist. And if you’re interested in reading Fowler’s highly-acclaimed work, don’t read on. It simply isn’t one of those twists you can know before picking up the book. The sheer joy of the first part of the novel is being led blindly into the narrative, without even realising it. So, if you’re committed to reading it, do so first. Go on.
Can’t get over the twist in the book I’m reading. Sitting in shock. Just… WHAT?!? #WeAreAllCompletelyBesideOurselves
— Erin (@errymcgee) April 29, 2015
Meet Rosemary Cooke, a college student from a family of scientists, quiet, reserved, clever. We join her in the middle of her story, but don’t worry – we’ll get to see where it all began and where it ends too. There’s something not quite right about Rosemary, which comes across in her first-person narrative. She’s unsettled, nervous and struggles with small day-to-day things. For a long time, as a reader, you’re not really sure why, apart from the fact that her older brother, Lowell and her younger sister, Fern, disappeared from her life when she was still a little girl.
Rosemary’s present life is interesting enough to drive the book – her misadventures with the too-loud-to-be-believed Harlow are everything the hippy, freedom-fighting setting of Davis, California needs – but Rosemary’s past continues to haunt her. What happened to her sister? Where is Lowell? Whose fault was it that they, respectively, ran away and were sent away from home?
And then, that twist. Somewhere around page 77 of the book, as the blurb tantalisingly says. Cleverer people might have seen it coming. Personally, it changed everything. Rosemary’s story becomes increasingly complex and the focus is fixed on Fern. Why was she sent away? Where is she? Is she being badly treated? Is she even alive? Rosemary’s misdemeanours in Davis, and even Lowell’s surprise appearance, all manage to link back to Fern and the distinct impression that the Cooke family let her down. She was intended to be something wonderful, unique, and, primarily, loved, but instead was given away like old clothing. Mercifully, the novel does bring closure to the many questions and loose ends within it. Although heavy-going, it is a novel full of important messages, each one embodied in Fern’s harrowing journey.
Intriguing, but not a page-turner
I read a lot of reviews that described this novel as difficult to follow and ‘ADHD’ like in the way it jumps around in time. If you are someone that needs to be led chronologically through a story, then this will probably be a frustrating read for you. There’s nothing difficult about it – it’s not War and Peace – it’s just complex in its structure and requires both patience and a desire to investigate to get through.
None of that should be a knock against Fowler’s narrative style, however. Her short, sharp sentences are exactly my style of prose and something that American authors are, generally, much more adept at than English. It comes from a history of writers like James and Bellow, who can depict communities and cities in a single, puncy paragraph. Fowler is much the same and somehow incorporates a deep and emotional first-person narrative into defined and neat lines and dialogue. If anything, this combats the slightly fantastical nature of the plot and situations that Rosemary finds herself in, making it a believable and moving novel.
The novel was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and deservedly so. It is both an excellent read and a vehicle for an important message. Amongst the reems of chick lit and murder mysteries that come out year upon year, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is unique in being a story of childhood and life that condemns and questions humanity. Even if you’re not remotely interested in animal welfare, medical testing or any of the issues raised in the novel, you can’t help but become involved in Fern and Rosemary’s story. And yes, you’ll probably put it back on the shelf at the end of your holiday, but it will linger with you. Those questions, that mystery, that goddamn twist. But in reading it, you’ve learned something and, possibly, made a difference. Fowler’s passions for her subject certainly have.
— Judy Levin (@JudyLevinBooks) April 22, 2015
— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) April 22, 2015