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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

***Warning*** There are significant plot spoilers included below.  I'll warn you when to stop reading.

Book Type: fiction, psychological experiments with humans and animals

Predictability Factor: not so much.

Cover Art: color block w/ bonus monkey!

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Um, Lowell/Rosemary/ (fictional) Indiana University

Character Score: 5 out of 10 Mr. Micawbers

What's the Story?: Rosemary Cooke has always known a life with her sister Fern by her side.  At the age of five, Rosemary is moved to a new home and Fern is nowhere to be found.  Years later, suppressed memories start to surface and Rosemary must find out what really happened to her sister.

X-Factor: Science experiments/animal activists

Cover Art: Kinda boring.  Brightly colored, but boring.  I already knew about the big plot point involved in the story so that was why I wanted to read it.  Not because of the cover.

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Who wouldn't want to sleep with mysterious animal activist/ domestic terrorist Lowell?  I feel bad that Rosemary is constantly worrying about her actions in society.  Whether her facial reactions are proper, if she's standing too close to other people.  I want to be the perfect person so she can feel comfortable and just be Rosemary.  And shame on you (fictional) Indiana University and other similar institutions who say "Hey!  Let's do some awesome animal experiments!"  Several years later: "Oh, hey.  This isn't really working out/we're not getting the results we expected.  We're terminating the program."  And then you just sell the test subjects (animals) to whoever will buy them regardless of the conditions in which they will live for the rest of their lives.  Shame, shame on you folks who do this in real life.

Character Score: Here's what I'll say:  I enjoyed seeing inside Rosemary's head.  But I thought that the addition of Harlow as a plot device was stupid.  She was vapid and I couldn't stand reading about her interactions with Rosemary.  Lowell, on the other hand, I would like to know more about.  Tell me what you've been doing all these years you've been on the run from the FBI!

***Spoilers!  Stop reading now!***

What's the Story?: Rosemary Cooke spent the first five years of her life joined at the hip with her beloved sister Fern.  Thing is, Fern is a chimpanzee and Rosemary's dad is a psychologist who is studying both of his "daughters."  One day, Rosemary is sent away to her grandparent's house for three weeks only to be returned to a different house with no explanation. But as distressing as this might be for a five-year-old, the worst is yet to come:  Rosemary cannot find Fern anywhere.  What happened to her sister?  Why will no one in her family speak Fern's name?  Why is her older brother so angry all the time?  The once motor-mouthed child withdraws deeper and deeper into herself as her family begins to self-destruct around her.  Rosemary starts kindergarten and begins to see just how non-traditional her upbringing has been: she can't connect with any of the other children.  As the years pass, Rosemary copes with having zero friends and blocks out practically all memories of Fern.

Fast forward almost ten years and we find Rosemary in college at the University of California, Davis.  She hasn't thought about Fern in ages.  She barely even thinks about her brother Lowell who disappeared at the age of 18 and became what amounts to a domestic terrorist.  Rosemary is pulled into the path of an unusual girl named Harlow and suddenly many things from her past return to her all at once.  Why was Fern taken away?  Where did she go? Was it all Rosemary's fault?  Will Lowell return even for the briefest of moments? Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an interesting look at the institution of family, scientific experimentation and self identity.

X-Factor: People have raised chimps in human homes for years.  This is not a new concept, but it certainly is an interesting one.  I picked the book up because it sounded like an interesting idea- raising your daughter alongside a newborn chimp.  I'm going to go out on a limb, however, and say that this probably isn't the best book on the subject.  I'd like to read some real-life memoirs of people who tried to do the same thing.  The thing that kills me, though, is that so many of these people commit their lives to this experiment.  They swear that the chimp will always be a part of their family etc. etc.  But accidents happen, chimps grow up big and strong or the humans simply become bored or inconvenienced by the experiment.  And then the chimps get sent to creepy labs where they don't know how to act with other chimps and bad things happen.  That's what gets me about this story.  That people can just shrug off another living creature so easily.


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