We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Summary

Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Summary

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler begins in medias res, which means in the middle of the story. The main character and narrator, Rosemary Cooke—also known as Rose—finds those stories the most interesting so tells the reader she prefers to begin there. At this point in the story, Rose is trying to finish her college degree in Davis, California. Despite having spent five years in college, she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her future. The reader learns that while she speaks with her mother, she rarely communicates with her father except for when they see one another at family get-togethers. Rose also reveals that she has two siblings, but provides little information about them at this time.

While in the cafeteria eating lunch with her boyfriend Reg, a female student named Harlow begins to fight with him. Rose watches the scene unfold, until campus security arrives and arrests Harlow and, mistakenly, Rose. She reaches out to her father for help, unable to think of who else to turn to. Her father assists her and she is released, but he asks her to come home for Thanksgiving so that they can discuss her arrest in more detail. Upon going home for the holiday, Rose discovers that her parents have moved. They live in a new house and didn’t tell her until now. She reflects on the strained relationships within her family. Her mother’s side never liked her father because of his atheist views and his profession as a scientist.

While home, Rose talks with her mother who gives her several journals. Rose loses them on her flight back to school. When her flight lands, her roommate Todd and Harlow are there to pick her up. Harlow apologizes to Rose for the fight and accidentally getting her arrested. The next day, Rose goes to pick up her lost luggage from her landlord, only to find out that her brother Lowell has been seeking her out. She hasn’t seen Lowell since she was a child. Rose reveals to the reader that Lowell was last seen by the FBI in California and that’s why she chose to go to school in that state. The FBI has been looking for Lowell for his involvement with an animal activist group. His activism was formented in the wake of their family raising—and subsequently abandoning—a chimpanzee named Fern. When Rose and Lowell meet again, Rose’s memories come flooding back.

While Lowell is staying with Rose, two important things happen. Rose remembers that she told her family that they had to choose to either keep her or Fern. Obviously they kept her, so passed Fern onto a lab. Lowell had gone to try to rescue Fern, and was caught. He ran away, sparking the FBI manhunt. The other important event that comes of Lowell’s brief stay is that Harlow falls in love with him and she herself becomes an activist. Rose tells her family about seeing Lowell. They reveal that Rose was not the solitary reason Fern was sent to the lab. Fern had been getting bigger, stronger, and more dangerous.

After Rose graduates from college, she takes a job teaching kindergarten near Fern’s lab home. She and her mother write books about their experiences with the chimpanzee and Rose begins to visit Fern again, trying to rebuild their relationship. Meanwhile, Lowell is arrested by the FBI and charged. Rose’s reflections on her history with Fern strengthen her teaching skills.

From a structural standpoint, this book operates through flashbacks which deliver snippets of Rose’s history—and her family’s history—as the book progresses. This technique not only brings the reader right into the action of the story while delivering suspense.

The main theme of the book is communication. Rose spends her childhood communicating with Fern, the chimpanzee, and her adulthood struggling to communicate with her family. Her brother is lost for much of her young adult life and she doesn’t speak often with her father. However, by the end of the book, Rose’s understanding of communication is improved by her rekindled relationship with Fern, and her strengthened relationship with her mother.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is also about family love, and for this theme, the book has been celebrated. In finding Fern again, Rose’s alter-ego and “sister,” she finds her family once more. Even though Lowell is apprehended by the FBI, his disappearance is no longer a mystery. Rose is close with her mother and continues to knit together the rifts in her family. Karen Joy Fowler’s novel has also been called smart and juicy for its premise of raising a child with a chimpanzee sibling. The book also examines the connections between animals and humans.