“We are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is Karen Jay Fowler’s sixth novel and has won the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Better still, it is on the short list for England’s Man Booker Prize which is open this year for the first time to Americans. Fowler is best-known for her novel “The Jane Austen Book Club.”
The story, starting in the middle as her father always told her to do, is told by Rosemary Cooke, the youngest member of an ordinary Midwestern family consisting of two parents and three children, Lowell, Rosemary, and Fern. As a toddler, Rosemary was so talkative that her parents had to curb her story-telling as often as they could.
It is not until the fifth chapter that we become privy to the surprising revelation that Fern, a true member of the family, is in fact a chimpanzee. Rosemary's father is a professor at Indiana University, and also a scientist studying animal behavior. He took on the experiment of raising Fern and Rosemary from birth to age 5 as twin sisters. A cadre of college graduate students was always on hand to observe the similarities and differences that were evident in the two subjects. Very early on, Rosemary knew that her development was constantly being compared to that of Fern’s. Fern always won out in tests of strength and dexterity, but Rosemary won any game involving speech, of course. Fern gradually developed a competent sign language vocabulary with the aid of the students and her family. Rosemary accepted Fern without question and took delight in their friendly rivalry.
When Rosemary was five years old, without any explanation, Fern was taken from their home. The children were told that she had been sent to a “farm.” Her name was never mentioned in their home again. Rosemary regressed from a loquacious, happy girl to a silent loner who did not make friends easily. In kindergarten, her fellow students did not know what to make of the girl who climbed on tables and crawled under desks. They succeeded in shunning her while, at the same time, they referred to her as the “monkey girl.”
The absence of Fern affected the entire household. Rosemary’s mother had a nervous breakdown, and her father became a quiet drunk. Her older brother, Lowell, disappeared, communicating with the family only with an occasional postcard from somewhere in the country. He turned up on the F.B.I.’s Wanted List for his militant animal rights protests.
When Rosemary chose the University of California at Davis to matriculate, it was because Lowell had been spotted in Davis. She always chose not to enter the conversation when her fellow classmates tried to top each other about their weird, bizarre families.
Rosemary finally found a friend in Harlow, a drama major, up for just about anything except her studies. She resonated with Rosemary who felt that she had found her twin sister, Fern, again in Harlow.
Karen Joy Fowler
The story has no happy ending. The reader learns a great deal about the dynamics of family life, animal rights, parental upbringing, and our similarities with simians. We learn that chimpanzees are one of just a few animals who recognize themselves in a mirror, along with elephants.
Fern brings to mind the famous chimpanzee named Washoe who was the first non-human to learn to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). Washoe learned to sign approximately 350 words of ASL. One quote in the book stands out for me: “Most home-raised chimps, when asked to sort photographs into piles of chimps and humans, make only the one mistake of putting their own picture into the human pile.” That pretty much sums it up.
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