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October 18, 2015 / ljbradburn-Smith

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

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When I started reading this book, on our honeymoon, I don’t think I was quite prepared for the emotional rollercoaster I found myself on. I think it is safe to say that had I not mainly been reading this novel in public, by the side of a pool, I would have cried even more than I did! Be prepared for this novel to shock you and to force you to open your eyes to some unpleasant truths about the world we live in.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves begins in the middle and is told through the eyes of Rosemary, Karen Joy Fowler’s twenty-something protagonist, who, until the age of 5, had two parents, one brother and a twin sister. That was until the visit to her Grandparents, which Rosemary remembers being accompanied by feelings of guilt and exclusion, when everything changed. Fowler’s protagonist describes her 5-year-old self’s confusion and distress over returning from the week-long trip to find her sister gone and her family in equal measures distraught and angry. With no trace of her twin, Fern, left in the house, and no-one mentioning her name or why she disappeared, Rosemary is left wondering what happened to her sister and if she will ever see her again. A few years later her older brother, Lowell, who has never forgiven his parents for Fern’s disappearance, takes off, leaving Rosemary as an only child to two parents whose ability to talk about anything remotely relating to feelings seems to have become pretty much non-existent. Rosemary’s chatter is replaced by silence as she comes to terms with the breakdown of her family and loneliness in the face of losing her childhood companions.

We join Rosemary at the point that she leaves for college and meets Harlow, a drama student whose wild and impulsive character resonates with Rosemary’s past. This life transition, along with meeting Harlow seems to spark a chain of events which lead to Rosemary finally facing up to her past and coming to terms with her own role in Fern’s disappearance.

The structure of this novel is interesting because it isn’t told in chronological order. We first meet Rosemary in her twenties, only to be taken back to the beginning of her story, to the middle again, back to the beginning and to many years later as she describes the events before and after her sister’s disappearance and how they affected the whole family. In her novel Fowler explores the importance of what is not said as well as the things that are. She pits action against blind eyes and screams against silent grief. Of all her themes and stories within this novel what struck me were her observations on human and animal behaviors and the importance of the first few years of a child’s life in shaping its future. The way in which Fowler tells the story of Rosemary’s childhood from her adult self’s perspective allows her to explore the way in which retrospect can shape and twist experiences in our past.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has a secret. A secret which is the key to the novel and which, once it is revealed, means you would never be able to read the novel in the same way a second time. Looking back now to when I started the novel I feel that I immediately sensed a difference in Rosemary and her behaviour, that hinted at the yet-to-be-revealed plot twist, but that is probably just retrospect talking.

Well written, stark and thought-provoking this wasn’t quite the lighthearted holiday read I expected, but then what use is a novel really if it doesn’t make you think? Rosemary and Fern; two very different plants but plants all the same.



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  1. eddiestarofficial / Oct 18 2015 6:26 pm

    great review!!

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