So much goes on in this remarkable book that it’s hard to squeeze it into a single genre. Is it a domestic drama? A coming-of-age story? A mystery? An expose of animal cruelty? A study in the neuropsychology? A tragicomedy or comic-tragedy? Yes, to all the above. However you classify it, Karen Joy Fowler’s book is a terrific read.
At its heart is the story of separated siblings—”twin” sisters pulled apart at the age of five—and the fallout from that separation on Rosie Cooke, the remaining sister. Rose is human; her twin was a chimpanzee. One day Fern disappeared, and Rosie doesn’t understand why.
Should you think the story far-fetched, you would be wrong: Fowler recounts actual history in which chimps were placed in human families. It was all part of academic research, going back to the 1930s, to study the parallels between chimps and humans. To what degree are chimps capable of understanding and behaving like their human cousins?
Fowler presents the flip side of that coin: to what degree are humans capable of understanding, and even behaving like, chimps? For Rosie this is the bigger question—the one research psychologists never bothered to ask. But Rosie knows that she took on as much of Fern’s chimp nature as Fern took on her human one.
Rosie instinctively mimics Fern, behavior which gets her dubbed “monkey girl.” Even her inner nature, she tells us, mirrors “classic chimp traits: she is “impulsive, possessive, and demanding.” And despite her attempts at restraint, Rosie is often “horrified” at the way her chimp nature “popped out when [she] wasn’t paying attention.”
Rosie’s journey is one of learning who she is—which part of her is human, which chimp—and learning about happened to Fern: why Fern left, where she went, and whether she’s still alive. Her older brother, as damaged by the separation as Rosie, follows his own path to find answers, as do their parents. All struggle to cope, even years later, with the loss of their beloved Fern.
This is a witty, sad, yet ultimately exuberant story about the responsibility of humans for our animal counterparts. While at times irritating—the book doesn’t quite make up its mind about what it wants to be—We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is one you won’t want to miss. Terrific topics for book discussions, as well.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.