18 September, 2021

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler
A Marian Wood Book
Release Date:  May 30, 2013
ISBN 978-0-399-16209-1

Patience is a virtue that one needs when reading Karen Joy Fowler‘s newest book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, at least at the onset.  The narrator does warn us – right off the bat she alerts the reader that her tale is starting in the middle.  The narrative jumps forward and reverses and moves at times like a car with a bad clutch, the action can be jumpy and difficult; frustrating, if you like your story lines to be nice and linear.  The characters are not always introduced yet you are expected to hold on until you can slot them into a time and place.  But!  It’s also a beautifully written book, witty and tender even under duress, with resolutions, when they come, like petals unfolding to reveal the vibrancy within.  (Just remember, though, that beauty can be terrible at times.)  Stick with it, and you will be greatly rewarded.

Our first house was outside of town – a large farmhouse with twenty acres of dogwood, sumac, goldenrod, and poison ivy; with frogs and fireflies and a feral cat with moon-colored eyes.  I don’t remember the house so well as the barn, and remember the barn less than the creek, and the creek less than an apple tree my brother and sister would climb to get into or out of their bedrooms.  I couldn’t climb up, because I couldn’t reach the first branch from the bottom, so about the time I turned four, I went upstairs and climbed down the tree instead.  I broke my collarbone and you could have killed yourself, my mother said, which would have been true if I’d fallen from the upstairs.  But I made it almost the whole way down, which  no one seemed to notice.  What have you learned? my father asked, and I didn’t have the words then, but, in retrospect, the lesson seemed to be that what you accomplish will never matter so much as where you fail.

Rosemary Cooke is the narrator of this book, and in it she relates the story of how she how it was that her family fell apart.  This is not something she could evaluate as it was happening; she was too young.  So, she starts in the middle of the story, which was 1996.  In 1996, she is 22; she hasn’t seen her brother for 10 years, and it has been 17 years since her sister disappeared.  She is far away from home, in her 5th year at the University of California-Davis, and is still not very close to achieving any degree (“My education, my father like to point, out, was wider than it was deep.  He said this often.“)

Rosemary is not aimless, just not particularly ambitious.  As we learn her mindset and are introduced to her philosophies and insights, we do not fully recognize how much we are truly being told in any given experience, because we have no backdrop to hold this information up to.  We witness a seminal moment when she meets impulsive and mercurial Harlow – the two women move from school cafeteria to jail cell, speaking their first words to each other in the back of a patrol car – who will end up poking her head into Rosemary’s life for years; and yet we do not realize just how important this scene will become in the story that has already happened and in the one that is yet to come.

We learn that Rosemary grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, where her father is a university professor and a psychologist.  Her mother used to call the children to breakfast by playing the piano, exuberantly.  Rosemary was gregarious, a non-stop talker; she used big words and knew what they meant.  The siblings squabbled and played.  There were kittens.  Life was pretty idyllic.

Then suddenly, when she was five, Rosemary was sent to live with her grandparents in Indianapolis.  By the time she got to be too much for them and was sent back, her mother was different.  Subdued, diminished, “vaporous”.  Her brother was sullen, full of storm clouds, her father was drinking more.  In her absence, they had moved from the farmhouse to a smaller house in town.  And her sister was gone.  They never again spoke of this sister, nor of where she had gone; Rosemary believed her parents were protecting her in some way, from learning the truth.

It is a quarter of the way through the book before we find out some defining information about this sister – Fern – but it’s not until the last third of the book that we learn what happened to her, and what happened to their brother who walked out six years later, never to return; their brother, who would send unsigned postcards from all over the country (“I’m seeing so much of America today“), and who was wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism.  You’ll have to keep reading to learn the why of any of it, for Rosemary’s memory is not very forthcoming.

So we go through the book learning about Rosemary even as she learns about her sister and struggles to reinterpret the motivations and reactions of her family based on that information.  She, frankly, is not the most sympathetic of characters, but she smacks of humanity and a Midwestern awkwardness.  As the layers of her upbringing are pulled back, we begin to understand a bit more just what it is that she struggles with, even as she starts to understand herself, at least a bit better.  And through it all, the prose is lyrical and humorous and engaging.

I was just about to call the airlines yet again, demand that they produce my real suitcase and take the pretender away, when Harlow showed up with a different idea.  Harlow’s different idea was to pick the lock on the suitcase we did have, open it, and see what was inside.  We would not take the stuff.  That went without saying.  But it was inconceivable to her that we’d return the case without even looking.  Who knew what a strange suitcase from Indiana (assuming it had come from Indiana) might contain.  Gold doubloons.  A heroin-stuffed doll.  Polariods of some midwestern city council in flagrante.  Apple butter.

Hint:  they don’t find apple butter.  But what they do find is … well, you’ll want to read it for yourself.  Patience.  It’s worth it.

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