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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Fair
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A Book A Week: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
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It's hard to write about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler without spoilers. If you are considering reading it, I recommend you stop reading this and go get the book right away, before you accidentally discover the secret. Diving into it without knowing the central conceit will be a good adventure, and I envy you the pleasure. I promise you won't be disappointed. Okay, off you go... bye!

Everyone else: In We Are all Completely Beside Ourselves, Rosemary and Fern are adopted sisters, raised together from infancy through age 5, when they are suddenly, irrevocably separated. Rosemary spends the rest of her childhood mourning Fern's loss and her young adult years tracking Fern down. She struggles to adapt to life without Fern and rails against her parents, whose involvement in Fern's disappearance baffles, then haunts Rosemary.

Here's the thing: Rosemary is a girl but Fern is a chimpanzee, a fact that Fowler doesn't reveal until about a third of the way through the book. Both Rosemary and Fern are test subjects in an experiment run by Rosemary's father, a behavioral scientist. For their first five years, Rosemary and Fern are happily cared for by their parents and a slew of graduate students, their development celebrated and recorded at every turn.

However, for reasons that unfold in the story, the experiment goes awry and Fern must be sent away, leaving the research project in shambles and the entire family far more damaged than anyone thought possible. Rosemary's mother retreats into serious depression, her father into alcohol. Her brother becomes a fugitive animal-rights activist, and Rosemary herself must navigate through life never sure whether her instincts are human or chimpanzee.

The novel's complex structure of present-day narration combined with flashbacks adds suspense and makes the big reveal very satisfying, even if you know it in advance, which I did. It was hard to avoid -- this book got a lot of press when it came out last year and recently won the 2014 Pen/Faulkner award.

While it has a political subtext, We Are all Completely Beside Ourselves is, at heart, a very personal story about relationships, loss, love and what it means to be human. Fowler was inspired by several well-known cases of chimps raised in human families but has added her own spin. Politically, she walks a fine line, managing to avoid vilifying Rosemary's father while still coming down firmly on the side of the animal-rights folks. She has clearly done her research.

It's tricky subject matter, and Fowler never puts a foot wrong. I was really delighted by this book, even when it was sad and heartbreaking.


Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week. She can be followed @abookaweek on Twitter.

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