Confession: I had no idea what We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was about before I started reading it. I imagine this is a hard pitch to sell – as an author, as a publisher, as a bookseller – but in this case, it enhanced my reading experience of this book, even though, when the narrator of the story points out what I’d managed to miss so far, I did feel rather stupid for a fleeting moment.
So let’s start with the yes or no question first: yes, I recommend this book, but not wholly without reservations. The story is interesting and plausible and it is well-written. Fowler draws an intelligent and evidently well-researched picture of what it must have been like to grow up in the situation the book describes. The book reads like a mystery as well: vague descriptions, sudden revelations, more than one disappearance. At the same time, though, the narrative felt distant, which is odd as the subject matter is supposed to be deeply personal. The novel’s narrator was, I thought, unlikeable, but also very realistic.
As for the plot: I don’t recommend finding out about it before you read the book, but if you insist: Rosemary Cooke starts her story in the middle. A lacklustre college student, a disappointment to her parents, like their other two children: Fern, who disappeared when Rosemary was five, and Lowell, who disappeared not long after that. Fern, we find out after a good 70 pages, was a chimpanzee, and she and Rosemary grew up together as the subjects of a study; what the purpose of this study is never explained clearly, except that the girl and the monkey were surrounded by researchers who constantly compare the two. The reasons for Fern’s removal from the family are kept back for a long time as Rosemary examines her relation with her family – her father now a disgraced scientist and an alcoholic, her mother depressed and lonely, her brother a member of the Animal Liberation Front on the run from the police – and with her lost sister. The novel touches several genres: there are descriptions of psychological theories, scientific experiments, but there is also the mystery element of Who, Where and Why that aren’t completely answered until the very last page. That is what keeps the novel interesting. It is far from perfect, but nonetheless worth your time.