We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Witty, moving and thought-provoking, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is narrated by Rosemary, an American college student who has always struggled, and continues to struggle, to fit in. Her loneliness is compounded by the fact that both her siblings, older brother Lowell and twin sister Fern, are mysteriously absent from the family, leaving Rosemary to spend holidays like Thanksgiving alone with her parents, without support or companionship, in a sadly reduced, incomplete family unit.

Told partly in flashback, and sometimes from several different points of view, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a tale of identity, language, family bonds, the formative nature of our early childhood experiences and the arrogance of humans' confidence in their own superiority. It's clear from the outset that Rosemary desperately misses Fern, the sister from whom she was separated just before they were old enough to start school, but also that Fern was, a child who could be described, tactfully, as unusual.

Subjected to constant observation and testing by Rosemary's father, a scientist, and his team of graduate students, Rosemary and Fern are constantly compared and contrasted, and yet it's the similarities between them, not the differences, that really matter. The object of the experiment of their upbringing seems to be to find out how much Fern will learn from Rosemary - and yet, it soon starts to emerge that what the scientific study should really have focused on was how much Rosemary would be influenced by Fern.

At this point, it becomes difficult to discuss the novel in much more detail without sharing a sudden revelation that occurs just under a third of the way into the story; while this so-called twist (it's not really a twist as such, more just a piece of information that is made available) has been widely discussed in reviews and by the author herself recently on BBC Radio 4, I've decided not to talk about it here. Rosemary says herself that she has good reason for withholding the information in question, and I would agree with her that one would read the story differently from the start if this particular fact were already known. Either way, it shapes the rest of the book from that point on.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a sharply written, astutely observant novel which veers from funny to bittersweet to outright tragic over the course of its pages. It's a family drama about a family who, while so far from typical in many ways, is absolutely typical in others. It's fair to say that practically nobody will ever have had the experience of growing up in family quite like Rosemary's, and yet everyone will recognise elements of the relationships in the novel. There are secrets, there are misunderstandings, there are misjudgements. What's unsaid in Rosemary's family is just as important - often more so - than what's said, and indeed, talking too much, not talking at all or talking in ways that fail in their objective are incidents that recur throughout the book.

Characterisation, I felt, was shaky in places. Rosemary is a gem, despite her frequent poor decisions and infuriating weaknesses, as is Fern, but Lowell as an adult can't quite live up to Rosemary's own depiction of him as a child, and their father is barely more than a stereotype of a scientist with more ego than sense. Rosemary's wayward loose cannon friend Harlow failed to impress me too. I also felt that structurally, the book lost its way from time to time. The non-linear narrative works, for the most part, but a couple of tangents seemed indulgent somehow, and I'd have liked a more decisive, definitive ending.

Otherwise, though, this a fascinating book that held my attention from the very first page, charmed me with its darkly wry humour and raised all sorts of fascinating moral questions over which I'm still pondering. 

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