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

There have been studies, and I completely agree based on my own history, that spoilers We Are All Completely Beside Ourselvesdon’t really affect enjoyment of media. Red Wedding? Knew it was coming. I can tell you a little something about Kaiser Soze and I don’t think it would change your opinion of the movie. I plan on quizzing my kid about the major aspects of Star Wars before letting him watch it for the first time. But I think I have found a book that I was absolutely better off not knowing a thing about before picking it up. One positive review and the book showing up first page on my library’s catalog the same day was all it took.

Which leads to the question of what the hell do I say about a book that almost can’t be talked about at all without spoiling some small part of it? Hell even the back cover blurb tells me more than I wish I had known; giving me the answer to one revelation once I was given a different one. But give this one to Fowler, she must have known that little details would get out. Because even if the major reveal had been spoiled beforehand this wasn’t actually a book that relies on a cheap reveal to work.

Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

There, I have posted the part of the blurb that doesn’t spoil anything. But it is completely worthless. Makes the book sound like a bad thriller (or a good episode of Gravity Falls). Like the big reveal will involve an assault in the past that then gets milked for all the faux emotion it can, or perhaps a mummified body falling out of a closet just as a PI is snooping around. In short, everything this book isn’t.

Fact is this is a wonderful introspective look through a fairly regular life that has a couple of unique facets. Rosemary tells it as spoken stories are often told; not by following any chronological order but rather by tying important details together no matter when they happened to take place. Reveal a major fact and then go back and fill in holes that she realized she left in earlier portions of the story that said fact affected.

Rosemary is never in danger, other than typical college or childhood dangers involving large trees or copious amounts of alcohol (with the large trees belonging to the childhood danger side of the diagram, this ain’t that kind of story either). Nor is she ever doing something so important that others will want to follower her; at least nothing that others will ever understand to be as important as she does. An incredibly serious subject manor lies through the narrative yet a ventriloquist’s dummy being taken out for drinks takes as much page time as some of the important people in Rosemary’s story. Being told the story by Rosemary of now (adult, looking backward) takes out some of the urgency certain scenes no doubt had at the time they happened (childhood or college days), but in no way took away from how much I grew to care.

No matter how many times she seems to go on a tangent I was riveted; by the halfway point it was clear we wouldn’t see the full picture until all the pieces were put into their proper place. There is where the genius lies, with a timeline that involves childhood, college days and the present each little gem Rosemary drops could affect each piece of the timeline in a different way.

But no, that isn’t where the genius lies; what a stupid thing to say. Because as important as piecing the puzzle together was this book is not a mystery—we were going to get to the final picture eventually because Rosemary already knows where the story goes. No the genius comes from how much Rosemary sucked me into her story. I cared about her, I wanted to know about her family (even those not always seen in the best of light), and I was just begging for a happy ending. I thought the book would make me cry (caution, it might cause a few tears). Then I thought it would end with Hollywood cheese. Then I realized I should stop over thinking things as Fowler was a step ahead of me all through the book and I just let the only ending I would have accepted come my way as it should. Melancholy, hopeful and sad all together. Just like the rest of the book.

(I got to assume my readership is smart enough to figure this out but just in case; not a speculative fiction book that I am talking about here).