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Monday, April 27, 2015


We are all completely beside ourselves is a novel of profound empathy. The story is told by Rosemary Cooke, a woman who begins her story in the middle. Any reader who has glanced at the book jacket or browsed a review on Amazon will know that this is a story of a chimp and a human raised as siblings but Rosemary spends 76 delightful pages dancing around the simian identity of her sister. This is not an annoying literary stunt, it's a completely honest way to tell the tale. If you were to meet Rosemary in real life the first thing out of her mouth would not be the words "my sister is a chimpanzee."

Rosemary begins her story when she's in college in California. She's tried and somewhat succeeded in leaving her family and many of her memories back in Indiana when she meets Harlow Fielding, a young woman who literally crashes into the story swearing and smashing dishes. She has her reasons. Forty minutes later Rosemary and Harlow are tucked into the back of a Yolo County police car, headed for jail. Harlow introduces herself, "So glad you decided to come with. I'm Harlow Fielding. Drama department." Indeed.

Rosemary's voice is a compelling one and her story, which grows to reveal her father, mother, brother and yes, her sister who is a chimpanzee, is as fascinating and true as life itself. Which is to say that it is funny and sad and foolish and wise, often at the same time.

Karen Joy Fowler writes with great empathy. Minor characters prove to be less minor than they appeared at first glance. Fowler's characters, be they human, simian, family, friend or foe, are complex. Rosemary remembers, but doubts her memories.

This is a story of a loving family and ways that love can go awry and ways that broken things may in time be mended. It's a story of how a quest for knowledge can lead us to places we don't expect and how our past choices make us what we are today. It is the story of what we think we have to lock away and what we ultimately have to free.

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