Title: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Published: June 2014
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Pages: 336 Pages
Rating: Three Stars
About the book
Rosemary’s young, just at college, and she’s decided not to tell anyone a thing about her family. So we’re not going to tell you too much either: you’ll have to find out for yourselves, round about page 77, what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other.
Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone – vanished from her life. There’s something unique about Rosemary’s sister, Fern. And it was this decision, made by her parents, to give Rosemary a sister like no other, that began all of Rosemary’s trouble. So now she’s telling her story: full of hilarious asides and brilliantly spiky lines, it’s a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice.
It’s funny, clever, intimate, honest, analytical and swirling with ideas that will come back to bite you. We hope you enjoy it, and if, when you’re telling a friend about it, you do decide to spill the beans about Fern – it’s pretty hard to resist – don’t worry. One of the few studies Rosemary doesn’t quote says that spoilers actually enhance reading.
***This is not a spoiler***
Wow. This is a ‘Marmite’ book. some will love this book, others will not. But a book that creates discussion and a reaction is what you want, isn’t it? Otherwise, why write?
Where to start? We don’t find out about Rosemary, the protagonist, and her family’s secret – the twist in the story- straight away but when we do…ah.
It’s going to be difficult to discuss without revealing the ‘spoiler’, but here goes…
For a brief moment, after the twist was revealed, I felt extremely irritated, putting the book down, sighing and thinking, “hang on, she has just led us to believe…” I felt betrayed, but actually, Fowler demonstrates how easy it is for the reader to make default assumptions.
I had invested in what I thought was a traditional family set up and suddenly I felt like the rug had been pulled from under me. Was it designed so that we got a taste of what Rosemary the protagonist was feeling? Indeed, she was led to believe in a ‘truth’ but had it cruelly taken away from her. Surely that was what the writer wanted to achieve; a connection with Rosemary’s feelings and therefore the irritation I felt with the story was always going to be part of the plan? I was drawn to reading further to see how it was going end but it was borderline. I knew that if there were too many intervals during the reading of the rest of the book, there was a strong chance that I wouldn’t finish it. And this is where I differ to what is suggested in the blurb above. Knowing the ‘spoiler’ in advance I would argue, does not always ‘enhance’, merely separates the ones who are intrigued (who are going to love the circumstance from the outset), from the ones who are not. I’d be more curious about the response of those reading it without a clue.
The style of writing didn’t grip me either. It felt as if Rosemary had broken off from her college dissertation and decided to embed some of it into a novel. The result? Well, In terms of connecting with the reader, it had hot and cold winds blowing throughout it. It swayed from a kidult Rosemary keen to impress with her knowledge and experience in experimental psychology and behaviour (and in doing so, she was doing an awful lot of telling), to, reflections on Rosemary’s close, bonding – touching at times – relationship with her sister. But there was an aloof didactic style, musing on research papers, analytical theories, and discussions with the college professor, which could be a potential switch off moment for those not remotely willing to go in that deep. Any tender, poignant moments shared from the close relationship Rosemary had with her sister and her brother were swaddled with anecdotal research so it didn’t create the great empathy I felt I needed to connect with her. But perhaps that was the point? Her relationship was cut short with her sister, then short with her brother and the whole family seem to be functioning on a good old staple diet of anger.
I also struggled with the pace of it, but again I felt that the ‘swaying’ lecture style of the novel slowed it down. I found Rosemary trying too hard on the ‘clever’ and ‘funny’ front but that’s not different to any person in their late teens so perhaps captured Rosemary well. And I think some of what is considered humorous is perhaps received differently here, across the pond.
I wasn’t fond of this book, but I clearly had a lot to say about it. I think it would be a great book for a reading group.
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2 thoughts on “My Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves By Karen Joy Fowler”
I’ve been wondering about this book, too. I know the spoiler, and…yeah. It sounds like a good premise, but hearing your analysis of it makes me wonder if the writer booked so much on the premise that she didn’t really think about telling a story well. I’m glad one of us read it! 🙂
Yes, yes I felt it was a bit like that. Certainly, for me it didn’t work. The twist made me skip a blink but not for long. I wonder too, and whether the different narrative styles in the story just didn’t gel, undoing the flow and losing the attraction to the story? Thanks 🙂