We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

In brief: Rosemary reflects back on her childhood, when she still had siblings, and how they have changed the way she acts.

The good: There’s a big reveal on page 77 which makes you rethink everything you’ve read.

The not-so-good: I think you need to avoid the spoiler to get the full impact, which makes it a little difficult to review!

Why I chose it: On the Man Booker Prize for 2014 long list.

Year: 2014

Pages: 323

Publisher: Serpent’s Tail (imprint of Profile Books, available through Allen & Unwin in Australia)

Setting: USA

My rating: 9 out of 10

Every time there’s a prize long list revealed, I promise myself that I’m going to attempt to read some of the books on it to broaden my horizons, fully utilise the power of the library and hopefully discover some great new authors. I had previously heard some great things about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves but I was a bit wary because I didn’t like Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club when I read it many years ago (so many, that I can’t remember why I didn’t enjoy it). Hence the trip to the library to give this one a go. If I only read one book on the Booker long list this year, I’m glad I picked this one. It was enjoyable and made me re-evaluate Fowler as an author. I think she’s mastered the red herring with this book in addition to scrutinising family dynamics.

You may have heard that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves contains a big reveal (it’s on page 77 of the Australian copy, by all means AVOID flicking to this page). I think it’s better not to know what’s about to happen, which also means no reading the acknowledgements, reading group questions and further reading at the back. Part of the delight of the book is trying to guess exactly what is happening in Rosemary’s family – Fowler drops enough hints and red herrings so that it might be possible to guess or to be led completely up the garden path (I was the latter). This reveal also makes it bloody hard to review this book without spoiling it for you! Perhaps I should leave it at my impression of what had happened – jaw droppingly, ‘what the…’, okay, quick, turn to the next page to see what happens. It’s original and sets the reader on a track to query how we treat others, relationships and what family means.

Rosemary is the narrator in this novel. She’s retelling the story from back when she was in college and lamenting the changes in her personality. It seems she blames her family for this – she used to be one of three siblings, but both Fern and Lowell have disappeared from her radar. She wants to see them both again (Rosemary’s pain is tangible here) but relations with her parents are strained. It’s after her mother gives Rosemary her journals of ‘that time’ that Rosemary starts to feel the need to dig into her past. (Funnily enough, the journals are lost on the way home but that’s the impetus that Rosemary needs to start evaluating her own actions). As the story progresses, we find out more of what happened with Fern and Lowell and Rosemary’s guilt comes to the surface. Was she the sole reason for their departure? To balance this, we also read about the good times the siblings had. It’s a powerful testimony to the ties that bind family – and that can also tear them apart. It’s very moving, particularly towards the end when Rosemary gains the courage to find out the truth of what happened and make amends.

Besides the examination of the family, there’s also some fantastic research applied by Fowler. Sometimes I would have to stop reading to look into the trials and experiments mentioned (but I can’t tell you their nature because you know, spoilers and that). This is also where the further reading section came in handy. Don’t be scared of this novel because it’s on a prize long list – it’s very readable and the story easy to follow and relate to.

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7 thoughts on “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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  1. This has been one of my favourite books this year – I knew the spoiler before I started and although it took away from the story a little, I so thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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