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"I thought this was a gripping, big-hearted book . . . through the tender voice of her protagonist, Fowler has a lot to say about family, memory, language, science, and indeed the question of what constitutes a human being."--Khaled Hosseini
From the "New York Times"-bestselling author of "The Jane Austen Book Club," the story of an American family, middle class in middle America, ordinary in every way but one. But that exception is the beating heart of this extraordinary novel.
Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and our narrator, Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons. "I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact: that I was raised with a chimpanzee," she tells us. "It's never going to be the first thing I share with someone. I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren't thinking of her as my sister. But until Fern's expulsion, I'd scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half, and I loved her as a sister."
Rosemary was not yet six when Fern was removed. Over the years, she's managed to block a lot of memories. She's smart, vulnerable, innocent, and culpable. With some guile, she guides us through the darkness, penetrating secrets and unearthing memories, leading us deeper into the mystery she has dangled before us from the start. Stripping off the protective masks that have hidden truths too painful to acknowledge, in the end, "Rosemary" truly is for remembrance.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-04-22
- Reviewer: Staff
It’s worth the trouble to avoid spoilers, including the ones on the back cover, for Fowler’s marvelous new novel; let her introduce the troubled Cooke family before she springs the jaw-dropping surprise at the heart of the story. Youngest daughter Rosemary is a college student acting on dangerous impulses; her first connection with wild-child Harlow lands the two in jail. Rosemary and the FBI are both on the lookout for her brother Lowell, who ran away after their sister Fern vanished. Rosemary won’t say right away what it was that left their mother in a crippling depression and their psychology professor father a bitter drunk, but she has good reasons for keeping quiet; what happens to Fern is completely shattering, reshaping the life of every member of the family. In the end, when Rosemary’s mother tells her, “I wanted you to have an extraordinary life,” it feels like a fairy-tale curse. But Rosemary’s experience isn’t only heartbreak; it’s a fascinating basis for insight into memory, the mind, and human development. Even in her most broken moments, Rosemary knows she knows things that no one else can know about what it means to be a sister, and a human being. Fowler’s (The Jane Austen Book Club) great accomplishment is not just that she takes the standard story of a family and makes it larger, but that the new space she’s created demands exploration. Agent: Wendy Weil, the Wendy Weil Agency. (June)
Sisters beneath the skin
Rosemary Cooke is, in many ways, an ordinary girl raised in an ordinary family. Her father is a behavioral psychologist who always brings his work home, and her mother is his supportive better half. As the youngest, Rose admires her older brother, Lowell, and is jealous because she thinks he loves her sister, Fern, the most. In fact, Rose thinks everyone would pay more attention to her if Fern weren’t around.
But that’s where the Cookes are different from most families. Rose and Fern are their father’s work: Fern is a chimp, being raised as a daughter in a human family.
In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, author Karen Joy Fowler (Wit’s End, The Jane Austen Book Club) offers a masterful account of a woman unraveling a tangle of family history, memory and the complex emotions that arise from the way she was raised.
As a girl, Rose’s identity was forged against her will, leaving her marked as “monkey girl”—like most siblings, Rose’s movements and attitudes mimicked her sister’s. Rose wanted to know life without Fern.
And then she did. One summer, Rose was sent to her grandparents’ house while the family moved. When she returned home, Fern had been sent away for good. And Rose quickly discovered life wasn’t as she had expected it would be. “If I’d ever imagined I’d be more important without her constantly distracting everyone, I found quite the opposite,” she says. Years later, Rose is left to explore the balance between memory and fiction. Are her recollections of her sister’s departure and the days preceding it accurate, or has she repressed some events and adjusted those memories with time? Could her parents be trusted after promising to love Fern and Rose just the same, but giving Fern away? Why was her sister forced to leave?
Fowler’s extensive research into chimp behavioral studies and her understanding of psychology (like her character’s dad, Fowler’s own father was a behavioral psychologist) show up throughout this thoughtful novel. In the end, readers are left to ponder with Rose perhaps the most important question raised: What makes us human, anyway?