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Review: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

“Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.” (Albert Camus)

Karen Joy Fowler is a writer that I thought I had not encountered before reading her most recent novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Certainly I’d never read anything by her before, but I’ve subsequently learned that she wrote the book which served as the basis for the 2007 movie The Jane Austen Book Club, which I didn’t mind but also didn’t love (although I know many ardent fans of it).

Had I identified Fowler with The Jane Austen Book Club before picking up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, it might have given me pause, so it’s a good thing I didn’t make the connection, or I would have missed out on something very good indeed.

It’s hard to review this book without spoiling, and this is one book where spoilers really will detract from the impact of the plot; I’ll try not to be too irritatingly elliptical in what I say here. What I can talk about, without spoiling, are the themes and successes of this book, themes that are informed and enabled by the central plot device, but not entirely derived from it.

Above all, I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as a novel about family – about the depth and fierceness of familial, especially sibling, love; about the ways in which we both know and never know the people we share genes or upbringings with; about the multitudes of ways we hurt each other within the tightly woven web of family relationships. It’s also about a lot of other things – ethics, justice, developmental psychology, environmentalism, the nature of humanity, college life, activism, and survival, among other things. The frame within which it all sits, however, is Rosemary’s family, with its tragic backstory and legacy of traumas unspoken.

Although the story itself is highly original (I can’t recall a parallel set of circumstances offhand), Fowler isn’t shy about using some of the better-worn devices for adding stickiness to a family scenario. Most importantly, the trope of the absent sibling is deployed, and, in fact, doubled, in this book, with protagonist and narrator Rosemary telling her story in the heavy, almost oppressive, absence of both her brother, Lowell, and her sister, Fern. As Rosemary tells us early on, neither Fern nor Lowell is dead, but their absence from the present is felt and communicated as an aching gap, a hole, that colours everything in Rosemary’s own life and the lives of her parents.

The absence of Lowell and Fern is not in itself the twist (it may not be spoken about by her parents, but nor is it concealed from the reader, with Rosemary adverting to it early and plaintively). However, the resonances that Fowler achieves from this, and the impact that she posits this only-remaining-child status would have on Rosemary, reminded me of another excellent book about family and absent siblings, Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. While Rosemary is not in any sense a mirror of Ruby Lennox, the ways in which she draws in on herself, the separate inner existence she develops to cope, have decided echoes. Rosemary’s mother, unlike Ruby’s, is not self-interested and narcissistic; indeed, she’s written as a likeable, albeit sad and damaged, woman. Nonetheless, the pain of the past hangs between Rosemary and her mother every bit as thoroughly as it does between Ruby and hers.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves picks up when Rosemary is in college, which means that the backstory is unfolded slowly and via flashbacks or recounted memories, a style that I often find melodramatic but I think Fowler pulls it off (mostly – there are one or two dramatic denouements that don’t quite ring true). Although Rosemary is, and remains, firmly the main protagonist, Fowler also has a deft touch with the supporting cast. The long-suffering roommate, Todd; the feckless, brilliant and erratic friend, Harlow, whose dramatic antics open the book; Harlow’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Reg; Rosemary’s paranoid and slightly scary building manager, Ezra – all these people are fully realised and interesting additions to what is, first to last, Rosemary’s story of making sense of, and making peace with, the past. The shenanigans she is drawn into in Harlow’s wild wake are part-catharsis, part-folie-a-deux, but they all serve a higher narrative purpose, and never clunkily or unnaturally.

Young adult Rosemary is a person with problems; not screaming ones, not flamboyant ones, but problems nonetheless. She struggles to make meaningful connections, to feel any sense of purpose or direction; she finds personal relationships difficult, especially romantic / sexual ones; she isn’t sure what exactly she is doing at college, except (and she’s very clear on this part) being away from home, as far away as she can get.

I found this portrait of formless unhappiness very powerful, because I think young adulthood is often the time when this particular malaise strikes hardest at people who have experienced loss and trauma in childhood. (To put on my personal hat, it rang true for me because Fowler captured with great honesty the general emotional affect of my own early college years, which followed a childhood not without challenges).

Out of the immediate numbing shadow of it, yet not yet ready, or perhaps even able, to fully process and integrate what happened into one’s adult psyche, survivors can find themselves weighed down and at the same time almost weightless, directionless, as diffuse as smoke, in this early part of independent life. In Rosemary’s case in particular, this is exacerbated by the lack of closure that her lack of knowledge of what has actually become of Fern and Lowell – and her hope, that she keeps resolutely trying to strangle, without success, that she might one day see them both again.

It’s difficult to sum up exactly why this book is so powerful, and why it works as well as it does, without being able to discuss the main plot device. There are two passages I would love to quote, but neither would make sense without knowing the story. Instead, I’ll circle back to the Camus quote with which I led off; this is a book about human beings (one in particular) learning to be what they are, and understand, within a social context, just what that might mean.