BOOK REVIEW: Karen Joy Fowler, "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves"

Dad's tone changed.  "I suppose someone put you up to it," he said.  "You've always been a follower."

In Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, it’s made immediately clear that Rosemary Cooke is not your ordinary protagonist. From the opening of the story, with the flinty, detached way she begins her narration, the way the story begins self-consciously right in the middle, it’s as if we are watching her struggle to tell us her story in real time. Rosemary is not quite sure how to engage with the reader. She’s not sure why she’s become, in her eyes, the imitation of a real person.  Why is Rosemary Cooke this way? Why does she feel the need to disappear?  And why does she feel like a fraud?

I found We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves while in Princeton, New Jersey, exploring the town before I spent a week working with the Princeton University Art Museum.  Basking in the bright 30-degree weather, I wandered into Labyrinth Books.  I wasn't looking for anything in particular, but as I'd been thinking about this topic for a while previously, I asked the employee sitting behind the desk to see if she could find me a book with a female protagonist, a coming-of-age narrative arc, and a sense of humor (though the last was more negotiable).  After several minutes of looking and enlisting the expertise of another Labyrinth employee, she brought me Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I opened the book and was hooked by its elegant, breezy opening pages. (The mention of a chimpanzee on the back cover did not dampen my interest, either.)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves chronicles Rosemary's downward spiral, from a happy early childhood with her family in Bloomington, Indiana, to the event in her life that changed her into the wallflower she has become.  She’s estranged her from her father; her older brother Lowell has disappeared, and her mother has faded into a shadow of her former self.  The novel opens with Rosemary in college, treading water, directionless, rudderless; while spending a night in jail, she takes us back to her past, to where all the troubles began.

Rosemary describes with beautiful, impressionistic language the happy, busy, exciting life she lived with her family.  As Rosemary describes her past bit by bit, the journey back in time unfolds delicately like a paper fortune-teller, the truth of her story coming into focus layer by later until we as the readers learn about the event that turned her from a strong-willed, talkative child, from an active participant in the world, into the "follower" she is today.

The "twist" of the story (it’s on the back of the book so its not really a spoiler) is that Rosemary's sister Fern is not really her sister, but is in fact a chimpanzee that her family has been raising alongside their children. In the manner of Dr. Kellogg's experiments, Rosemary’s father and his students have been studying the ability of chimps to assimilate to human life.  During those years Rosemary and Fern were raised as sisters—as twins, treated with equal amounts of love and indulgence.  As Rosemary and Fern are raised side-by-side, Rosemary finds herself developing more chimp-like qualities, qualities that isolate her from her classmates, qualities she must begin to learn to curtail in an attempt to seem more human.  

The key event in the novel that leads to Rosemary's change from vivacious to withdrawn is referenced in oblique, offhand comments. Then it shocks you with its sadness: Rosemary was sent to stay with her grandparents for a week, and when she returned Fern was gone. She later learns that Fern was sent away for good, to live among other chimps, locked away in a cage instead of as a member of a household in the manner to which she had been accustomed.  The reason why Fern was removed from the family is in turn revealed bit by bit until its most tragic, if slightly obvious, revelation.  And soon after, Rosemary's brother runs away, and it becomes is clear that due to her detachment and painful, severed connection to her "sister" that Rosemary feels inhuman, a “monkey girl” pretending to be human.

Once the book returns to the present, Rosemary chronicles her downward spiral over the course of a few days, beginning with the news that her missing brother has come to see her at school, which forces her to come to terms with the truth of her family's past, her brother's present, and why she came to UC Davis in the first place.

Fowler, who is best known for The Jane Austen Book Club, has created a protagonist I find relatable and tragic, and a novel worthy of the character of Rosemary.  According to Fowler, the inspiration for the novel came from an experiment that actually happened in the 1930s, where a chimp was raised in a human family and studied alongside human children.  Fowler seems to have done her research, both on how chimps act, learn, and grow in this sort of environment, and what happens to these chimps once the experiment is done.  It is this aspect of the story that is truly shocking and sad, and much of the end of the novel is dedicated towards grappling with the questions of how animals are treated.

While I didn’t expect to be called upon to consider the humanity of chimps when I walked into Labyrinth Books, looking for my female-led coming of age story, I got what I came for—and then some.  Ultimately, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves ends up asking the reader to ponder: How close is animal intelligence to human intelligence? What does it mean to be truly human? And what constitutes a true family, however strange it may be?

This review was also published by The Stake here.


  1. Interesting story....clearly the humor part was negotiable. Good review...


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