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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
by Karen Joy Fowler

Published: 2013-05-30
Hardcover : 320 pages
6 members reading this now
21 clubs reading this now
5 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 3 of 4 members
Named a Best of 2013 pick by: The New York Times Book Review, Slate, Newsday, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, The Christian Science Monitor, Library Journal, and BookPage

"I thought this was a gripping, big-hearted book . . . through the tender voice of her protagonist, ...
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Introduction

Named a Best of 2013 pick by: The New York Times Book Review, Slate, Newsday, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, The Christian Science Monitor, Library Journal, and BookPage

"I thought this was a gripping, big-hearted book . . . through the tender voice of her protagonist, Fowler has a lot to say about family, memory, language, science, and indeed the question of what constitutes a human being."--Khaled Hosseini

From the New York Times?bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club, the story of an American family, middle class in middle America, ordinary in every way but one. But that exception is the beating heart of this extraordinary novel.

Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and our narrator, Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons. ?I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact: that I was raised with a chimpanzee,â? she tells us. ?Itâ??s never going to be the first thing I share with someone. I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you arenâ??t thinking of her as my sister. But until Fernâ??s expulsion, Iâ??d scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half, and I loved her as a sister.â?

Rosemary was not yet six when Fern was removed. Over the years, sheâ??s managed to block a lot of memories. Sheâ??s smart, vulnerable, innocent, and culpable. With some guile, she guides us through the darkness, penetrating secrets and unearthing memories, leading us deeper into the mystery she has dangled before us from the start. Stripping off the protective masks that have hidden truths too painful to acknowledge, in the end, ?Rosemaryâ? truly is for remembrance.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

As part of leaving Bloomington for college and my brand new start, Iâ??d made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern. Back in those college days I never spoke of her and seldom thought of her. If anyone asked about my family, I admitted to two parents, still married, and one brother, older, who traveled a lot. Not mentioning Fern was first a decision, and later a habit, hard and painful even now to break. Even now, way off in 2012, I canâ??t abide someone else bringing her up. I have to ease into it. I have to choose my moment.

Though I was only five when she disappeared from my life, I do remember her. I remember her sharply â?? her smell and touch, scattered images of her face, her ears, her chin, her eyes. Her arms, her feet, her fingers. But I donâ??t remember her fully, not the way Lowell does.

Lowell is my brotherâ??s real name. Our parents met at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona at a high school summer science camp. â??Iâ??d come to see the heavens,â? our father always said. â??But the stars were in her eyes,â? a line that used to please and embarrass me in equal measure. Young geeks in love.

I would think better of myself now if, like Lowell, Iâ??d been angry about Fernâ??s disappearance, but it seemed too dangerous just then to be mad at our parents and I was frightened instead. There was also a part of me relieved, and powerfully, shamefully so, to be the one kept and not the one given away. Whenever I remember this, I try to also remember that I was only five years old. Iâ??d like to be fair here, even to myself. It would be nice to get all the way to forgiveness, though I havenâ??t managed it yet and donâ??t know that I ever will. Or ever should.

Those weeks I spent with our grandparents in Indianapolis still serve as the most extreme demarcation in my life, my personal Rubicon. Before, I had a sister. After, none.

Before, the more I talked, the happier our parents seemed. After, they joined the rest of the world in asking me to be quiet. I finally became so. But not for quite some time and not because I was asked.

Before, my brother was part of the family. After, he was just killing time until he could be shed of us.

Before, many things that happened are missing in my memory or else stripped-down, condensed to their essentials like fairy tales. Once upon a time there was a house with an apple tree in the yard and a creek and a moon-eyed cat. After, for a period of several months, I seem to remember a lot and much of it with a suspiciously well-lit clarity. Take any memory from my early childhood and I can tell you instantly whether it happened while we still had Fern or after sheâ??d gone. I can do this because I remember which me was there. The me with Fern or the me without? Two entirely different people.

Still, there are reasons for suspicion. I was only five. How is it possible that I remember, as I seem to, a handful of conversations word for word, the exact song on the radio, the particular clothes I was wearing? Why are there so many scenes I remember from impossible vantage points, so many things I picture from above, as if Iâ??d climbed the curtains and was looking down on my family? And why is there one thing that I remember distinctly, living color and surround-sound, but believe with all my heart never occurred? Bookmark that thought. Weâ??ll come back to it later.

I remember often being told to be quiet, but I seldom remember what I was saying at the time. As I recount things, this lacuna may give you the erroneous impression that I already wasnâ??t talking much. Please assume that I am talking continuously in all the scenes that follow until I tell you that Iâ??m not.

Our parents, on the other hand, had shut their mouths and the rest of my childhood took place in that odd silence. They never reminisced about the time they had to drive halfway back to Indianapolis because Iâ??d left Dexter Poindexter, my terry-cloth penguin (threadbare, ravaged by love â?? as who amongst us is not) in a gas station restroom, although they often talk about the time our friend Marjorie Weaver left her mother-in-law in the exact same place. Better story, I grant you.

I know from Grandma Fredericka, and not our parents, that I once went missing for long enough that the police were called and it turned out Iâ??d tailed Santa Claus out of a department store and into a tobacco shop where he was buying cigars and he gave me the ring off one, so the police being called was just an added bonus on what must have already been a pretty good day.

I know from Grandma Donna, and not our parents, that I once buried a dime in some cake batter as a surprise and one of the graduate students chipped her tooth on it and everybody thought Fern had done it, until I spoke up, so brave and honest. Not to mention generous since the dime had been my own.

So who knows what revelries, what romps my memories have taken with so little corroboration to restrain them? If you donâ??t count the taunting at school, then the only people who talked much about Fern were my Grandma Donna, until Mom made her stop, and my brother Lowell, until he left us. Each had too obvious an agenda to be reliable â?? Grandma wishing to shield our mother from any share of blame, Lowell stropping his stories into knives.

Once upon a time there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and father whoâ??d promised to love them both exactly the same. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

Early on in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the character Rosemary Cooke tells the reader that she will start her story "in the middle." Why is it important to her to skip the beginning?

Rosemary recounts many memories of the chimpanzee Fern and their brief life together. How were she and Fern, in the language of the novel, "Same" and "NotSame"? What does their relationship suggest about the compatibility of humans and primates? How are humans different from other animals?

How did being co-raised with a chimpanzee impact Rosemary's development? In what ways was she different from other, "normal" children? How does she still differ from them to this day?

Consider Rosemary's father and mother. Are they good parents? Should they have handled Fern's leaving any differently? If so, how?

Each member of the Cooke family was dramatically-indeed, traumatically-affected by the loss of Fern. Did they share a personal sense of guilt? Of regret? Of responsibility for what happened? If so, how did these emotions manifest themselves in each family member? How do their responses enrich our understanding of these people?

What is your opinion of Rosemary's brother, Lowell Cooke? Are his extreme views and actions at all justified? Does he truly have Fern's well-being at heart?

How does Harlow Fielding's whirlwind entrance into Rosemary Cooke's world alter Rosemary's trajectory through life?

Think about the significance of memory and storytelling in the novel. How is Rosemary's memory-and, consequently, her narrative-affected by the emotional trauma she has experienced?

Consider Harlow Fielding and Ezra Metzger's failed attempt to liberate monkeys from the primate center, both the motivations of these co-conspirators and the outcome itself. Was their mission in any way an admirable act? How were Harlow and Ezra's intentions different or similar to Lowell's?

Do you think Rosemary comes to find peace with her family history by the end of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves?

Is animal experimentation ever justified? If so, under what circumstances?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

“Rosemary’s voice—vulnerable, angry, shockingly honest—is so compelling and the cast of characters, including Fern, irresistible. A fantastic novel: technically and intellectually complex, while emotionally gripping.”

—Kirkus (starred review)

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  "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves"by Margie H. (see profile) 03/16/15

Exceptionally well-written. funny yet poignant, this book has so many talking points for book clubs. Our club loved it, and we had a great discussion.

 
  "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves"by Susan A. (see profile) 09/27/14

I really enjoyed this book. I loved the way the story unfolded and the suspenseful aspect of this family drama. I also appreciated the way the narrator evolved and through her own telling ... (read more)

 
  "Gloomy"by Kristi F. (see profile) 03/11/14

I did not enjoy this book at all, it was very gloomy and dark. At times the novel seemed disjointed and hard to follow.

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