June 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

By Karen Joy Fowler
What makes us human, anyway? Award-winning author Karen Joy Fowler ponders this question through the story of a chimp raised as a human.
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Rosemary Cooke is, in many ways, an ordinary girl raised in an ordinary family. Her father is a behavioral psychologist who always brings his work home, and her mother is his supportive better half. As the youngest, Rose admires her older brother, Lowell, and is jealous because she thinks he loves her sister, Fern, the most. In fact, Rose thinks everyone would pay more attention to her if Fern weren’t around.

But that’s where the Cookes are different from most families. Rose and Fern are their father’s work: Fern is a chimp, being raised as a daughter in a human family.

In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, author Karen Joy Fowler (Wit’s End, The Jane Austen Book Club) offers a masterful account of a woman unraveling a tangle of family history, memory and the complex emotions that arise from the way she was raised.

As a girl, Rose’s identity was forged against her will, leaving her marked as “monkey girl”—like most siblings, Rose’s movements and attitudes mimicked her sister’s. Rose wanted to know life without Fern.

And then she did. One summer, Rose was sent to her grandparents’ house while the family moved. When she returned home, Fern had been sent away for good. And Rose quickly discovered life wasn’t as she had expected it would be. “If I’d ever imagined I’d be more important without her constantly distracting everyone, I found quite the opposite,” she says. Years later, Rose is left to explore the balance between memory and fiction. Are her recollections of her sister’s departure and the days preceding it accurate, or has she repressed some events and adjusted those memories with time? Could her parents be trusted after promising to love Fern and Rose just the same, but giving Fern away? Why was her sister forced to leave?

Fowler’s extensive research into chimp behavioral studies and her understanding of psychology (like her character’s dad, Fowler’s own father was a behavioral psychologist) show up throughout this thoughtful novel. In the end, readers are left to ponder with Rose perhaps the most important question raised: What makes us human, anyway?

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