Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Title: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Author: Karen Joy Fowler

Genre: Literary Fiction, Adult, Psychology

Format: Paperback

Publication Date: 30th May 2013

An off-told story is like a photograph in a family album. Eventually it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.

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Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother Lowell.

Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back, back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.


Everyone loves a book that makes them feel smart.  For me, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (WAACBO for the sake of typing out the tirelessly long title every time) is that book.

My father would surely want me to point out that, at five, I was still in Jean Piaget’s preoperational phase with regard to cognitive thinking and emotional development.

Having studied language acquisition and developmental psychology, I felt quite satisfied not having to Google research references.  To be honest, that fact alone probably earned this book a star.  Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The book is narrated by Rosemary, whose childhood was shaped around a five-year psychological study of her and her sister.  Now a young adult, she muses on how the study affected her, and ultimately what went wrong; what led her sister to vanish when they were just five years old (thus terminating the experiment), and what made her older brother run away from home?

I actually bought this book a year ago because it looked pretty.  I don’t think I even read the blurb.  It was the opposite of the whole concept of First Lines Fridays, and I was seduced by the texture of the title on the cover and the contrast of the black against the yellow.  To be honest, when I picked it up a few days ago, I thought the blurb sounded a little bit dull, but I was intrigued enough to open it up and start reading.  It took me a little while to adjust to reading an adult book again, after quite a lengthy binge of teen and young adult literature.  Does anyone else need an adjustment period when switching books like that?  Maybe it’s just me.

The book doesn’t hide the fact that there is a twist – ‘One of the best twists in years’ is not-so-subtly quoted on the front – and this twist is actually revealed a quarter of the way through.  I won’t spoil what it is, because the impact of that moment makes you question everything you’ve just read up to that point.  At first, I was disappointed by this ‘twist’, but actually there wouldn’t be a book without it, at least not one that deals so honestly with the negative side effects of psychological experiments.  At the end of the book, Karen Joy Fowler reveals that her father was a psychologist, and I knew there had to be some link to psychology in her life, because Rosemary talks about it with such authenticity.

I knew exactly what it was like to be raised by psychologists.  I wouldn’t have to make that part up at all.

One of my favourite elements of the book is the fact that first-person narrator Rosemary is constantly questioning the truth in her own narrative.  Using memory research as evidence, she reinforces that her accounts of situations are most likely not accurate, that there is a lot she cannot remember, and sometimes, later in the book, she is triggered into remembering more details.  This makes the narrative very choppy and inconsistent, but for me that just adds to the experience of the book (though I imagine there are some people who would disagree with me on that point).

The happening and telling are very different things. This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it. Language does this to our memories, simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies.

Another positive of the book is that there wasn’t any sort of theme where our protagonist actively searches for romance. She is blunt about the topic when it is appropriate to be so, but she really is searching for something much more important – peace with her memories and the whirlwind of thoughts in her head.  After reading so much YA recently, this was really quite refreshing, though arguably she is only not seeking romance because she is so psychologically damaged, and ponders this herself at one point.  In retrospect, perhaps this isn’t such a positive?

Despite the many positives I can list about WAACBO, I still feel like it didn’t quite reach five stars. Close, but I sometimes found myself brushly vaguely over her great monologues, even though I knew Rosemary couldn’t help it – a character flaw. This book wouldn’t be for everyone, but it details so precisely Rosemary’s unique emotional journey that I thoroughly recommend giving it a shot.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆½ (4.5/5)


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