If there were any justice in the universe, Karen Joy Fowler would be as rich and famous as people who write tedious pornography or tell stories about boy wizards. Her sales figures do not reach the bazillion mark, but you may know her from The Jane Austen Book Club, which was a NY Times bestseller and made into a movie. I’ve also recommended The Sweetheart Season to many readers.
Karen is universally admired by other writers, myself among them. She is also one of my favorite people, so I’m not allowed to review her books professionally, but that doesn’t keep me from telling you here that I LOVED We’re All Completely Beside Ourselves.
You know how people say something is incredible or unbelievable when they mean it’s excellent? Well, Karen Joy Fowler’s new novel is excellent: utterly believable and completely credible — a funny, moving, entertaining novel. It is also a fierce, important, unblinking review of a shameful chapter in the history of science.
During the 20th century, when I was an active anthropologist, there was a great deal of interest in what exactly made humans human. Language was the key, people thought, and so there was a fad for raising chimpanzees and gorillas side by side with human children to see how and why their development diverged. Was it simply that chimps and gorillas lacked the vocal apparatus to speak, or did they lack the cognitive capacity for abstract thought?
It turned out that sign language could bridge some of the gap, but what nobody anticipated was what would happen when the chimps and gorillas came of age: big, strong, hormonal, and ultimately frightening. Nor did anyone wonder how being raised with a chimp or gorilla might affect the human child.
So. What is We’re All Completely Beside Ourselves about? Karen doesn’t reveal the secret until the center of the story, when the narrator tries to sum things up. “Once upon a time, there were two sisters, and a mother and a father who promised to love them both the same.” One of the sisters, you will find out, is a chimpanzee.
I’m going to quote you some of the blurbs because I am obviously not the only writer who was (a) swept away as a reader and (b) blown away as a fellow novelist. As Ruth Ozeki (My Year of Meats; A Tale for the Time Being) says, “It’s been years since I felt so passionate about a book. When I finished at three a.m., I wept, then reread the ending, and wept again.”
Dan Chaon (Await Your Reply; Stay Awake) wrote: “This unforgettable novel is a dark and beautiful journey into the heart of a family, an exploration of the meanings of memory, and a study of what it means to be ‘human.’ In the end this book doesn’t just break your heart, it takes your heart and won’t give it back.”
Kelly Link (Stranger Things Have Happened; Pretty Monsters) wrote that WACBO “a funny, stingingly smart and heartbreaking book. Among other things, it’s about love, family, loss, and secrets. And it’s about the acquisition and loss of language. It’s also about two sisters, Rosemary and Fern, who are unlike any other sisters you’ve ever met.”
Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones; The Almost Moon) wrote that this is “A dark and cautionary tale hanging out, incognito, in what seems at first to be a traditional family narrative. It is anything but. It is deliciously jaunty in tone and disturbing in material.”
Andrea Barrett (Ship Fever; Servants of the Map) says, “In this curious, wonderfully intelligent novel, Karen Joy Fowler brings to life a most unusual family. Wonderful Fern, wonderful Rosemary. Through them we feel what it really means to be a human animal.”
Having played the blurb game myself, I can tell you that these are extraordinarily thoughtful, emotional responses by writers who get asked for blurbs about four times a month. Usually, we try to say something that’s both honest and nice, and that’s not always easy.
I myself can’t say enough about how good WACBO is. (And if there is a single thing about it I’m not thrilled by, it’s the title, which is long and hard to say. If I could have named it, I’d have used Red Chip, Blue Chip, and you’ll understand why at the end of the book.) The voice is so captivating that I ordered the audio version after reading it because I wanted to hear Rosemary tell her story. The narrator’s effort to tell the truth is both hilarious and moving as she tries to be utterly honest about what seems to be true but might be a false memory while also identifying what seems to have been impossible but evidently was real. The palpable, unsentimental, physical reality of her sister Fern’s chimp-ness is stunning. The moral and ethical issues are laid out with fairness and decency to all involved, including the scientists — most of whom meant well but some of whom are quite rightly condemned as awful specimens of Homo sapiens.
The underlying science is rock solid. This would be an emotionally gripping book for anthropology professors to assign to college classes doing primate studies. It would not be out of place in a college course on developmental psychology. Mostly though, it is simply and wonderfully a good read. Buy it, and help make Karen Joy Fowler as famous and rich as she ought to be!