The major revelation (which will not be spoiled here) in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been pegged by some readers as a twist; a gasp-worthy admission that elevates the novel to an entirely new level. Unfortunately I knew about it long before I started reading; the penance of the bookseller, I suppose. Not that it detracted from my enjoyment of Fowler’s tenth book; if not its content, than at the very least its structure and willingness to push the boundaries. Honestly, I wasn’t as entranced by We Are Completely Beside Ourselves as my fellow readers; but despite that, it’s a novel I would happily put in the hands of anyone searching for a fresh take on dysfunctional families. It’s a novel I recognize as being very, very good, despite it not gelling with my proclivities.
The novel is narrated by Rosemary Cooke, as unreliable narrator as I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading; though, interestingly, she acknowledges it, and once we, the reader, finally grasp the complexity of her story, her unreliability is completely understandable. To label the cook family dysfunctional is doing a disservice to the world: the dynamics and history of the family is completely insane because of the social experiment they partook in. The consequences of the first five years of Rosemary’s life, during which she lived with her parents, older brother, and ‘twin sister’ Fern, ripple greatly in her later years; especially when Fern is ripped from their lives, for reasons Rosemary doesn’t quite understand until much, much later.
Fowler’s non-linear approach to the story should be lauded. In lesser hands, this might render the plot nonsensical; but the Man Booker-shortlisted author demonstrates impressive finesse. This is a complicated tale delightfully executed: a fine exploration of families and siblings, and the inherent complexities of life. How do we define ourselves? How essential are our families to that definition? And there are wider issues beyond that, too – the divulging of which would spoil the aforementioned twist.
A novel I liked, rather than loved; nevertheless, I’d still slap a “Must Read” sticker on We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.