We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Review: 5 out of 5 stars
When I read the summary of this book, I didn’t want to pick it up. A girl raised with a chimpanzee? Well-intentioned but heart-breaking consequences? It sounded like some young adult book that people like because it’s easily digestible. But thank goodness this is not that kind of book. This book is a smart, sometimes funny, often hard look at the underpinnings of living life as a flawed human being.
Any gist of this novel will fall short. I’ll tell you what it’s about, but with this fair warning: the description will not do justice to the gripping narration or the intense philosophical and psychological undertones. On the surface this is a story told by Rosemary, a young woman who was raised alongside a chimpanzee when she was a very young child, and she now struggles to fit in with her family and society. But on a deeper level, this isn’t a book about a chimpanzee at all. Rather the story is about how the complexity of guilt, memory, humanness, and identity affect the ability to live a normal life.
I immensely loved the narrator. She funny, sharp, and broken. In an example from early in the novel, on pg. 14, Rosemary describes her mother as “an infamous bridge hustler—I’m amazed there are still people who’ll play with her, but that’s how desperate for bridge some people get; it’s like a drug.” The tone is flippant and yet accurate, silly yet authentic. The narration pulled me in and kept me through some very tough issues that arise in the middle of the book.
The issues this book explores are both plot-based and theme-based. Plot issues center around Rosemary dealing with family issues that are so painful and perceptive I couldn’t help but live them with her. The story then dives into the deep end of issues on themes like the use of animals in scientific experiments. You will feel like you can’t breathe during these parts.
There’s also a lot of playing around with psychological theories and real social issues. Nothing heavy handed, but the book creates places where we need to stop and really think about what was just written and how it applies to the world.
My favorite parts of the novel centered around the tenuous nature of memories. (After I wrote this, my husband read it and asked me if the chimpanzee turns out to not be real. This is not what I’m hinting at. There is no cheesy gotcha moment like that.) The author did a bang-up job on capturing how memories shape our world, make us who we are, and yet completely fail us at the same time.
Here’s a favorite quote of mine on pg. 48: “Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, ,mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph i a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”