We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

( 45 )

Overview

“A gripping, bighearted book.” —Khaled Hosseini

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014

Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award

One of the New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of 2013 and named by The Christian Science Monitor as one of the top 15 works of fiction

The New York Times bestselling ...

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Overview

“A gripping, bighearted book.” —Khaled Hosseini

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014

Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award

One of the New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of 2013 and named by The Christian Science Monitor as one of the top 15 works of fiction

The New York Times bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club introduces a middle-class American family, ordinary in every way but one.
 
Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons. “I was raised with a chimpanzee,” she explains. “I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. But until Fern’s expulsion … she was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half and I loved her as a sister.” As a child, Rosemary never stopped talking. Then, something happened, and Rosemary wrapped herself in silence.

In We Are All Completely beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler weaves her most accomplished work to date—a tale of loving but fallible people whose well-intentioned actions lead to heartbreaking consequences.

Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award
Shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Ron Charles
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves isn't just about an unusual childhood experiment; it's about a lifetime spent in the shadow of grief…Rosemary's voice and her efforts to understand—and forgive—herself are moving. Fowler has such a sprightly tone, an endearing way of sloughing off profound observations that will illuminate your own past even if you have no chimps swinging in your immediate family tree…What does it mean to be human, she asks, and what does it mean to be humane? Although there's little doubt where her sympathies lie, Fowler manages to subsume any polemical motive within an unsettling, emotionally complex story that plumbs the mystery of our strange relationship with the animal kingdom—relatives included.
The New York Times Book Review - Barbara Kingsolver
…a novel so readably juicy and surreptitiously smart, it deserves all the attention it can get…Fowler…is a trustworthy guide through many complex territories: the historical allure and dicey ethics of experimental psychology, not to mention academic families and the college towns of Bloomington and Davis…The novel's fresh diction and madcap plot…bend the tone toward comedy, but it never mislays its solemn raison d'étre. Monkeyshines aside, this is a story of Everyfamily in which loss engraves relationships, truth is a soulful stalker and coming-of-age means facing down the mirror, recognizing the shape-shifting notion of self.
Publishers Weekly
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)
Washington Post
Rosemary's voice and her efforts to understand — and forgive — herself are moving. Fowler has such a sprightly tone, an endearing way of sloughing off profound observations that will illuminate your own past even if you have no chimps swinging in your immediate family tree.
Library Journal
In this eye-opener from New York Times best-selling author Fowler, Rosemary Cooke narrates the story of her family, paying special attention to sister Fern, who just happens to have been a chimpanzee. With a reading group guide.
Kirkus Reviews
What is the boundary between human and animal beings and what happens when that boundary is blurred are two of many questions raised in Fowler's provocative sixth novel (The Jane Austen Book Club, 2004, etc.), the narration of a young woman grieving over her lost sister, who happens to be a chimpanzee. Rosemary recounts her family history at first haltingly and then with increasingly articulate passion. In 1996, she is a troubled student at U.C. Davis who rarely speaks out loud. She thinks as little as possible about her childhood and the two siblings no longer part of her family. But during a Thanksgiving visit home to Bloomington, Ind., where her father is a psychology professor, that past resurfaces. Rosemary recalls her distress as a 5-year-old when she returned from visiting her grandparents to find her family living in a new house and her sister Fern gone. Denying any memory of why Fern disappeared, she claims to remember only the aftermath: her mother's breakdown; her father's withdrawal; her older brother Lowell's accelerating anger until he left the family at 18 to find Fern and become an animal rights activist/terrorist; her own continuing inability to fit in with human peers. Gradually, Rosemary acknowledges an idyllic earlier childhood when she and Fern were inseparable playmates on a farm, their intact family shared with psych grad students. By waiting to clarify that Fern was a chimpanzee, Rosemary challenges readers to rethink concepts of kinship and selfhood; for Rosemary and Lowell, Fern was and will always be a sister, not an experiment in raising a chimpanzee with human children. And when, after 10 years of silence, Lowell shows up in Davis to describe Fern's current living conditions, he shakes free more memories for Rosemary of her sibling relationship with Fern, the superior twin she loved, envied and sometimes resented. Readers will forgive Fowler's occasional didacticism about animal experimentation since Rosemary's voice--vulnerable, angry, shockingly honest--is so compelling and the cast of characters, including Fern, irresistible. A fantastic novel: technically and intellectually complex, while emotionally gripping.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142180822
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/25/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 16,092
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler is the award-winning author of four story collections and five previous novels. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Biography

A genre such as science fiction, with its deeply committed fans and otherworldly subject matter, tends to stand apart from the rest of the book world. So when one writer manages to push the boundaries and achieve success with both sci-fi and mainstream fiction readers, it's a feat that signals she's worth paying attention to.

In terms of subject matter, Karen Joy Fowler is all over the map. Her first novel, 1991's Sarah Canary, is the story of the enigmatic title character, set in the Washington Territory in 1873. A Chinese railway worker's attempt to escort Sarah back to the insane asylum he believes she came from turns into more than he bargained for. Fowler weaves race and women's rights into the story, and it could be another historical novel -- except for a detail Fowler talks about in a 2004 interview. "I think for science fiction readers, it's pretty obvious that Sarah Canary is an alien," Fowler says. Yet other readers are dumbfounded by this news, seeing no sign of it. For her part, Fowler refuses to make a declaration either way.

Sarah Canary was followed in 1996 by The Sweetheart Season, a novel about a 1950s women's baseball league that earned comparisons to Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon works; and the 2001 novel Sister Noon, which Fowler called "a sort of secret history of San Francisco." For all three novels, critics lauded Fowler for her originality and compelling storytelling as she infused her books with elements of fantasy and well-researched history.

In 2004, Fowler released her first contemporary novel, The Jane Austen Book Club. It dealt with five women and one man reading six of Austen's novels over a six-month period, and earned still more praise for Fowler. The New York Times called the novel shrewd and funny; The Washington Post said, "It's... hard to explain quite why The Jane Austen Book Club is so wonderful. But that it is wonderful will soon be widely recognized, indeed, a truth universally acknowledged." Though Fowler clearly wrote the book with Austen fans in mind – she too loves the English author of classics such as Pride and Prejudice -- knowledge of Austen's works is not a prerequisite for enjoyment.

Readers who want to learn more about Fowler's sci-fi side should also seek out her short story collections. Black Glass (1999) is not a strictly sci-fi affair, but it is probably the most readily available; her Web site offers a useful bibliography of stories she has published in various collections and sci-fi journals, including the Nebula Award-winning "What I Didn't See."

Fowler also continues to be involved with science fiction as a co-founder of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, designed to honor "science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender." The award has spawned two anthologies, which Fowler has taken part in editing.

Whether or not Fowler moves further in the direction of mainstream contemporary fiction, she clearly has the flexibility and skill as a writer to retain fans no matter what. Her "category" as a writer may be fluid, but it doesn't seem to make a difference to readers who discover her unique, absorbing stories and get wrapped up in them.

Good To Know

In our interview, Fowler shared some fun facts about herself with us:

"The first thing I ever wanted to be was a dog breeder. Instead I've had a succession of eccentric pound rescues. My favorite was a Keeshond Shepherd mix, named Tamara Press after the Russian shot-putter. Tamara went through college with me, was there when I married, when I had children. She was like Nana in Peter Pan; we were a team. I'm too permissive to deal with spaniels or hounds, as it turns out. Not that I haven't had them, just that I lose the alpha advantage."

"I have cats, too. But I can't talk about them. They don't like it."

"I'm not afraid of spiders or snakes, at least not the California varieties. But I can't watch scary movies. That is, I can watch them, but I can't sleep after, so mostly I don't. Unless I'm tricked. I mention no names. You know who you are."

"I loved the television show The Night Stalker when it was on. Also The Greatest American Hero. And I Spy. And recently Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except for the final year."

"I do the crossword puzzle in the Nation every week. I don't like other crossword puzzles, only that one. It takes me two days on average."

"I take yoga classes. I eat sushi. I walk the dog. I spend way too much time on email. Mostly I read."

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    1. Hometown:
      Davis, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 7, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      Bloomington, Indiana
    1. Education:
      B.A., The University of California, Berkeley, 1972; M.A., The University of California, Davis, 1974

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

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.

ABOUT MARYANNE O'HARA

Karen Joy Fowleris the author of three story collections and six novels, one a national bestseller, another a PEN/Faulkner finalist, and all New York Times Notable Books. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Early on in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the character Rosemary Cooke tells the reader that she will start her story "in the middle." Why is it important to her to skip the beginning?
  • Rosemary recounts many memories of the chimpanzee Fern and their brief life together. How were she and Fern, in the language of the novel, "Same" and "NotSame"? What does their relationship suggest about the compatibility of humans and primates? How are humans different from other animals?
  • How did being co-raised with a chimpanzee impact Rosemary's development? In what ways was she different from other, "normal" children? How does she still differ from them to this day?
  • Consider Rosemary's father and mother. Are they good parents? Should they have handled Fern's leaving any differently? If so, how?
  • Each member of the Cooke family was dramatically-indeed, traumatically-affected by the loss of Fern. Did they share a personal sense of guilt? Of regret? Of responsibility for what happened? If so, how did these emotions manifest themselves in each family member? How do their responses enrich our understanding of these people?
  • What is your opinion of Rosemary's brother, Lowell Cooke? Are his extreme views and actions at all justified? Does he truly have Fern's well-being at heart?
  • How does Harlow Fielding's whirlwind entrance into Rosemary Cooke's world alter Rosemary's trajectory through life?
  • Think about the significance of memory and storytelling in the novel. How is Rosemary's memory-and, consequently, her narrative-affected by the emotional trauma she has experienced?
  • Consider Harlow Fielding and Ezra Metzger's failed attempt to liberate monkeys from the primate center, both the motivations of these co-conspirators and the outcome itself. Was their mission in any way an admirable act? How were Harlow and Ezra's intentions different or similar to Lowell's?
  • Do you think Rosemary comes to find peace with her family history by the end of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves?
  • Is animal experimentation ever justified? If so, under what circumstances?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 45 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(25)

4 Star

(14)

3 Star

(2)

2 Star

(1)

1 Star

(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 45 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    This is definitely a quirky book, but I liked it a lot. I though

    This is definitely a quirky book, but I liked it a lot. I though the plot moved smoothly, The characters are all richly drawn. I really recommend this book as an entertaining piece of literature. A nice follow up to the Jane Austen Book Club.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2013

    Cannot-put-the-book-down plot. Characters so real their pulse be

    Cannot-put-the-book-down plot. Characters so real their pulse became my pulse. 
    Writing that drew me into its intricate web one shimmering strand at a time. 

    A dazzling exploration using psychology, philosophy, and science to probe
    the shadowy workings of the brain, the nerve-triggered organism of family
     and, ultimately, the mysterious place that connects us all.             

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2013

    Recommended

    First if all I liked it. But I am a biologist. But it is a clever twist on the dysfunctional family theme and also a thesis giving more wind to the halting of animal testing especially on primates. It is like an Uncle Tom's Cabin for Primates. There were some preachy parts, yes, but acceptable since Rosemary had to work through all this herself and she did strive to be very transparent. I loved the references to real live case studies on chimps and the synopsis of their research conclusions. But I also loved the quirkiness of the story. I have to think on this one for a few more days before I move on to a new book.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 7, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    It Will Stay With You...

    Fowler tells such a believable story about two sisters one human, one chimpanzee raised together since birth that at times I forgot it was fiction. There are images of one heart wrenching segment burned into my mind that I will not soon forget. As a psychology major I had long forgotten reading about this research, then I read it dispassionately at a safe clinical distance. Now, Fowler's book deals with the same subject yet grabbed hold of my emotions and would not let go. So much food for thought here family dysfunction, insecurity, love, ethics, pros/cons of animal research of course, but other questions as well, for example, how can we as adults sort out trauma we experienced as a child? Think about it! Admittedly, some of the philosophical discussion was beyond me, but this book has so much more to offer. Give it a try!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 3, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    We are all completely beside ourselves  Karen Joy Fowler  Trade

    We are all completely beside ourselves 
    Karen Joy Fowler 
    Trade Paperback 
    Publisher: A Marian Wood Book/Putnam 
    Publication Date: May 30, 2013 
    ISBN-13: 978-0399162091 
    320 pages 
    Uncorrected Proof - Advance Reader’s Copy

         Karen Joy Fowler writes some of the oddest fiction I’ve ever read. And when I say odd I mean brilliant in a slanted, quirky way. When she writes a nostalgic scene you will think of your childhood home, your grandparents, and those you loved, laughed, and played with when you were growing up. When she wants you to laugh at yourself or teases your sensibilities you will find the humor hidden in all the little crevices of humanity. When she holds up the mirror of sentiment and emotion you will see yourself in her story.

         We are all completely beside ourselves is a story of love, family, devotion, separation, and the dichotomy of life and the biased memories we make in our own minds concerning our pasts. But more than that it’s a story of social interaction and how we act, react, and interact through emotionally stressful and confusing times.

         One undeserved criticism Fowler sometimes receives is that her characters are unfinished, furtive, and difficult to connect to. Many of her characters are mysteriously, and I think, intentionally, incomplete and here’s why I think it’s the perfect approach to creating a superior character, especially in the emotionally-driven narratives Fowler creates. Humans are enigmatic and unknown even to themselves sometimes. We are flawed, we are duplicitous, and we are opinionated and often change our attitudes. We occasionally don’t know our own minds or the real reasons we say or act the way we do. We are hurtful yet full of kindness. We are truthful but lie to preserve our own slanted images of ourselves and we confuse emotions with obsessions. Karen Joy Fowler’s characters then, mirror the gaps and holes in us all. In essence she writes enormously realistic characters that remind us of our own strengths, failings, assets, and ambiguities. Simply put, she writes convincing characters as compassionate, flawed, emotional human beings.

         This is the second novel by Karen Joy Fowler I’ve reviewed. I gave the first, Sarah Canary, a high overall review rating for originality, style, and content. We are all completely beside ourselves is no less creative than Sarah Canary and is, in my opinion, a superior read well worth the time.

         File with: mysteries, animal rights, emotionally-driven narratives, the human condition, love, loneliness, and social interaction.

    4 ½ out of 5 Stars

    The Alternative 
    Southeast Wisconsin

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2013

    Worst book I have ever completed

    Worst book I have ever read. HORRIBLE, BORING, PATHETIC. Sorry I spent the money on it. Who in their right mind would recommend this?

    2 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 18, 2014

    Great novels for me are all about character development and the

    Great novels for me are all about character development and the character development in this story was amazing. It was a very original book to me. It was original in both subject matter and the way the story was told. The main character described it as "starting in the middle". This could have been confusing but it was handled beautifully and totally enhanced the story. I also loved the way the different perspectives were handled. Sometimes the main character would come out and tell you something like, "this is what I didn't tell you" and reveal a part that is important to our understanding of the story but, although noteworthy, would not have been overly important to the character in that moment. Other times you see it in the conversations she has with others. The subject matter explores all of the complexities that subjects like animal treatment have. It is pro-animal, definitely, but it doesn't over-simplify. I was completely taken with the main character. I love the way she describes things, I love her sense of humor and her insights. Without giving anything at all away she did say, "When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy. Even their smaller sorrows will last for only as long as you can take out a book" and I work in a library and all so...... Thank you to Good Reads for the copy of this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2014

    Are we sure this is fiction?

    I started out knowing this was a work of fiction, but as I got deeper into it I began to have doubts. It read like a well researched report of a woman who had had a very strange childhood. The reactions of the family members were very real and they all had good reasons for reacting the way they did. The parts of the story that took place "off stage" didn't bother me at all. I wanted to have a post read discussion with the author to find out what happened since the end of the story we are told.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 17, 2014

    A fascinating read!

    The story unfolds as a mystery. As I continued to read, the rich, deeply developed characters led me into a tale of family, relationships, and the effects our choices have on our lives. The author's research adds depth and power to her novel. The story is fiction, and yet we learn about real studies that were done through the years. These studies...experiments with chimpanzees living with humans, lead the reader to a sensitive perspective from both the human and animal's side. It is a bittersweet tale...a compelling read that I couldn't put down.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 26, 2014

    I highly recommend this. Gripping, extremely valuable, with endu

    I highly recommend this. Gripping, extremely valuable, with enduring effect. Archetypal in that so many human primates of my acquaintance, lacking some of the shining intelligence and virtues our society values, are placed in cages. For me, this issue from the book sticks: Why do we have all these sisters and brothers in cages, in the local county jail and other prisons, where they are neglected, even brutalized?

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2014

    Quirky and fun.

    Quirky and fun.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2014

    Highly recommend!!

    Highly recommend!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2014

    Awesome

    This book is so different, interesting and insightful.

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  • Posted April 7, 2014

    Did not care for this book..., who in their right mind would sub

    Did not care for this book..., who in their right mind would subject their child to live in this environment

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2014

    Boring

    Not my cup of tea

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2014

    Esquisitely revealing, beautifully Exquisitely written. Exquisitely written, deeply reflective

    A unique tale of identity and love that will pull on the hearstrings, and leave readers questioning human nature. Easily one of my new favorites.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 11, 2014

    I did not enjoy this book at all, it was very gloomy and dark.

    I did not enjoy this book at all, it was very gloomy and dark. At times the novel seemed disjointed and hard to follow.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2014

    Loved the monkey girl's story

    A well told story involving some quite complex characters. I loved the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2013

    Absolutely riveting. I don't want to say anything about the plot

    Absolutely riveting. I don't want to say anything about the plot because I think it would have been an even more amazing unfolding had I not known anything about it. What I will say is that this is an extraordinary, powerful novel and that Karen Joy Fowler's writing is brilliant. And it isn't just a fictional romp - much of the "science" in this story actually took place. This is subject matter that needs to be read by all. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2013

    The ending is too sweet

    I enjoyed the childhood stories but her college iife--not so much

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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