I have read several books lately that left me with a real void. Some were too trivial, others had too many problems solved and resolved too quickly and too tidily, and a third group had fallacies in the text such as wrong bugs, wrong tribes, and wrong descriptions. I slogged through them all as I am prone to do, hoping for some intellectual stimulus and intrigue, but overall I felt overwhelming disappointment. Then I picked up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Fowler takes all of the wonderful elements of a novel and weaves them into a fantastic plot filled with thought provoking characters and circumstances. From first page until the last my mind engaged with complete concentration.
The books main character is Rosemary and her story is revealed in first person. While the author jumps from scene to scene, character to character, decade to decade, she manages to tie it all together with honesty as she states that she failed to mention this or that or that she would explain that detail for later. Sometimes a book like this leaves the reader confused but Fowler gives just enough information and hints that the reader is mesmerized, excitedly awaiting the next insight and bit of information. She lets the reader know when she is changing scenes by explaining that she is starting in the middle and then flashes to the beginning and then back with snippets of the “end” tossed in as well.
This is not just a story of a girl, her dysfunctional parents, her disappearing brother and sister, and interesting friends but a lesson in patience, understanding, and how we relive events of our past through our own mind and memories and that these may differ greatly from the memories of others and the actual event itself. We carry worry and guilt, a sense of exaltation, and everything in-between based on our perceptions of experiences. The worry and guilt part especially hit home with me as these are feelings a tend to carry, always wondering if I have said or done the “right” thing or who I unintentionally hurt.
Two points of Fowler that I greatly appreciate and relate to are one, that even in our most terrific accomplishments we flash back to the failures we have had. I may have had thirty kind notes from my former students, for example, but the one letter that criticizes and lambasts me to my core rides heavy on my soul. All of the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” possibilities seep in instead of facing the reality that I simply could not reach that particular student in certain areas but that I tried my best.
The second point is that life is full of people who come into our lives, go from our lives, or those who are taken away. This distinction between coming and going and people being taken away is so significant. Death takes our loved ones from us as do vicious divorces, and angry fights. In these last three there is no going back, no opportunity to rearrange, readjust, regroup, or apologize. When my niece’s fiancé died suddenly, his son was ripped from our hearts as he was placed with his mother who did not love him but loved the thought of the money she would receive for his care. We have no legal recourse to change this arrangement. She is his biological mother. He is gone although perhaps when he is 18 we can attempt contact. Death is even more permanent with no chance to say and do all we wish we would have. Only dreams allow moments of contact and reaffirmation of love.
If you have read about medical research with animals, especially chimps, you will relate well to this book. The information provided causes reflection on the advantages of animal research in discovering cures ands remedies while making the reader ponder the cost it requires in the lives and health of innocent animals, especially those who love and respond with friendship to their keepers. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is rich for discussion and deep conversation, ideal for a book club or family chat. Fowler has produced something magnificent.
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