Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

UK book cover of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Anybody who’s read anything about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will be aware that there’s a ‘twist’ about a third of the way into the book. I use the quotation marks because, after talking with JimjamJenny, I can’t quite decide if it is a twist or common knowledge. I knew about it before I read the book and I can’t really review it without mentioning what it is, so you have been warned: this review contains mild spoilers. I think.

Plot summary: Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.

And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.

This isn’t about what I thought it would be about. While this happens fairly frequently and isn’t usually the end of the world, I was actually looking forward to reading about what it didn’t turn out to be about… *shakes head*… Did that even make sense? I shouldn’t write reviews at this time of night morning, I swear. Anyway, I was expecting to read an adult’s assessment on how on growing up as a scientific experiment impacted her life, but the novel barely even touches on the issues relating to that.

Instead we’re treated to a not-very-subtle novel about the horrors of animal testing, which occasionally reads like a preachy essay. It’s barely disguised, as the plot itself isn’t really strong enough to hide it. The premise itself is interesting and I’ve never seen anything like it done before, but it’s obviously quite unusual. The problem is, the novel never tries to make it believable so I couldn’t take it seriously.

Rosemary quite frequently says, “Nobody understands what having a chimp for a sister is like…” but then never actually tries to help us do so. “Oh no, people just don’t understand that Fern wasn’t a pet – she was my sister!” Well, no… I still don’t. I could have got on board with the whole idea if the book had gone for thoroughness instead of shock value, but it didn’t. It feels very flat for the most part, with little explanation and no emotion. One minute Rosemary didn’t care, and then suddenly did… and then didn’t. Ad nauseam.

While I obviously object to pointless experiments on animals in general, I can’t say I objected to the treatment of this chimp in particular – mainly because Rosemary didn’t either.  There was just no feeling there, which is a feat in itself considering it’s a first person narrative. For a theoretically ‘moving’ novel with the main purpose of drawing attention to laboratory conditions, it’s quite distant.

I actually quite liked Rosemary as a narrator; she was just too flat to be liked as a character. I really enjoy self-conscious narrators and it was carried out very well in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Occasionally she’ll mumble during the prose that so-and-so isn’t really part of the story or that she’ll explain a certain point later on. It adds a little kick to the writing and makes me care that tiny bit more.

Most importantly, this device allows her to look back over her five-year-old self’s memories and assess the reliability of them herself. Usually a reader is left to figure this out off their own back, so it’s quite interesting having a character become part of that process. I struggled to see her as the 40 year old woman she apparently is, but I suppose that’s the difficulty of having characters discuss their own childhood.

I think my main problem with this book is that it’s actually kind of pointless – nothing happens. It’s more of Rosemary sat in her bedroom wondering what happened than anything else. Even the grand denouement itself is remarkly anti-climactic (if that isn’t an oxymoron). I remember finishing the book with a raised eyebrow as I realised that nothing had actually changed from when I began the novel, aside from my being grouchy and a day older. 

There are worse books, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t see this as a Man Booker Prize contestant – I’m glad I’ve read it, but it hasn’t blown me away and I don’t think I’ll feel the need to read it again. For a more subtle yet impactful novel about the ethical treatment of laboratory apes, I’d go with Ape House by Sara Gruen (although it shocks me that I wrote that review in 2011…). 

Read JimJamJenny’s review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves at I Spiral Down. 


  1. Jimjamjenny says:

    I always think it's really interesting that two people can read the same book and come away with completely different opinions about it!

    It's interesting in that I can see where you're coming from with pretty much all of your criticisms (although Rosemary didn't come across as flat to me), but they didn't really bother me that much at all! I guess they might if I re-read it though?

    I quite often wonder how much of how we react to books is based on the expectations that we go into them with, because I know that starting a book and thinking that it's going to focus on something or be written in a certain style only to find out that it isn't has made me really dislike a few books and films… this is one of the reasons why lately I'm trying to sort of forget what books that I am going to read at some point are going to be about, I think its a bit freeing in some ways! Although there is nothing better than thinking that you know what something is going to be like and then finding that what it is actually about is a million times better! If you're actively trying to forget what books are about, it can make it difficult to choose which book to read next though, hehe. I do find that I need to know if a book is supposed to be funny before I read it though, because my standard reading mode is to take everything seriously, so I've finished reading really highly praised books before, been confused at why everyone liked it so much, and then realised that it's supposed to be satirical or something, and that I didn't catch onto it at all and just took everything at face value. Hehe.

    I think I need to look into Ape House!

    1. admin says:

      I agree completely about the expectations of books. I usually try to read a book after I've forgotten what its about as well, but I couldn't this time because I literally ONLY had my newest books available at the time. Maybe if I'd have waited, I'd have been more willing to go along with this book's ACTUAL premise.

      I LOVE when a book turns out different to what I expected, in a good way – there's nothing better. We Need To Talk About Kevin surprised me in that respect as it was nothing like what I expected and completely blew me away.

      I'd REALLY recommend Ape House. Ellie bought me it for Christmas during my first year of blogging (when I didn't have a TBR of 300+) and I read it immediately. It's amazing.

  2. Ellie says:

    This year's Man Booker shortlist really isn't coming out of it that well this year. Again. I just got the Joshua Ferris one out of the library and I'm not sure I'm even going to read it – I couldn't get into his debut and this one's been pretty much panned. That said, I think I'm still going to enjoy WAACBO (pronounced whack-boe), especially now that you've read it and warned me not to expect too much, haha. Thanks for taking the bullet on that one. 😛

  3. Etudesque says:

    Just added this one to goodreads as soon as I saw "twist" and then scrolled past when I read "mild spoilers"… but I read juuuust enough that I really want to check this one out! I know that you weren't blown away by this book, but I'll give this one a shot.

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