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Karen Joy Fowler
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
A Marian Wood Book / Putnam / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-399-16209-1
Publication Date: 05-30-2013
312 Pages; $28.50

Date Reviewed: 06-04-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  General Fiction  Science Fiction  

Rosemary Cooke has a story to tell, and she insists on doing so by starting in the middle. It's good advice, often given to writers — just jump in, start with the action, let the explanations take care of themselves. In Rosemary's case, we do start with the action. She's a troubled young woman who gets herself needlessly tossed in jail. This presents her with problems, but nothing like those she encounters when she looks at herself in the mirror.

Stories, like revenge, are best served cold and Karen Joy Fowler's 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' is no exception. There's more than a bit of revenge in this book, but it's sublimated, crushed beneath emotions that seize but never seethe. Rosemary's family, like most, looks pretty normal from the outside. Her older brother Lowell took off for parts unknown, furious with his parents for the way things went as he and Rosemary grew up. Parts of the picture are missing. As Rosemary tells her story, generous humor gives way to something much starker.

'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' is told entirely in Rosemary's first-person voice, and Fowler has created a young woman who manages to be utterly compelling, always engaging, and down-to-earth realistic. Rosemary is an American daughter who tells her quintessentially American story of family, science and the consequences of mixing the two. Her father and mother, never named, are alternately remote and supportive, stern and loving. Her brother, Lowell, is much loved by all and much missed as well, as is her sister Fern. Her new, friend Harlow, with whom she shares a jail cell, is a pistol, prone to hotheaded but understandable over-reaction. As we get to meet these characters — in Rosemary's peculiar storytelling style — we quickly come to enjoy them all. Everyone feels real, event those who aren't quite in the picture.

Fowler's plot is an extremely compelling story of family revelations. The Cooke family is, like many families, both utterly, blandly normal, and yet individually quite odd. They certainly have reasons for their strange behavior, and those reasons are not the sort they're inclined to discuss, least of all Rosemary. Getting to know the Cookes and finding out why they are the way they makes for a plot arc that is blisteringly intense and in the end, just about as weird as any family story. Fowler has at first great fun, and then extracts great power from the prototypical family story. She makes the pages turn as fast as they do in those movie montages where you see the years speed by.

Fowler often writes at the edges of the science fiction genre, and 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' ultimately proves itself to be in part a historical science fiction novel. The science has long been settled, but from the characters' perspectives, for much of the novel, that understanding is in the future — this moment, the present, that is. This is what can happen when you start a story in the middle. Time travel is inevitable. The revelations of the past are in the reader's future. We meet the characters in their own future. The next step, beyond the story, begins when we look in the mirror and decide just how much we like what we see.

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