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


The first few pages of Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We are all completely beside ourselves, are heaped tablespoons of praise from her peers. A comment from Sophie Hannah claims, ‘Best novel of the decade so far. Flawless.’ While it’s nice that the Karen Joy Fowler fan club are vocal and supportive, a book bloated with praise builds high expectations. High expectations which the author must meet or risk the disappointment of readers.

We are all completely beside ourselves is a warm and heartfelt story, interspersed with smart humour and family drama. It’s a coming-of-age story about family, friendship, identity, and what it means to be human.

Rosie’s childhood was unconventional. For the first five years of her life, Rosie and her sister Fern were the centre of a scientific study, captained by her father. Every detail of Fern and Rosie’s lives were recorded by a team of grad students. The experiment ends suddenly and despite their deep bond, Fern and Rosie are separated.

Teasing and name-calling are part of most school-yard memories, but for Rosie the problem is exacerbated. Her father’s experiments have changed her in fundamental ways and even though she tries, she can’t help but be different. She grows up as the weird kid, disconnected from her classmates and seemingly unable to make friends.

While the themes are common, the story is original in its premise. It reads like a memoir and is possibly semi auto-biographical as, like Rosie, Fowler’s late father was a scientist and the family also lived in Bloomington, Indiana, where most of the novel is set.

Among the accolades on the cover is another claim; ‘One of the best twists in years.’ Like a hollywood soundtrack that alerts the audience to a scary scene, the reader sits, waiting and forewarned of the upcoming surprise, instead of being genuinely surprised when the inevitable twist finally takes place.

A compelling story with many profound moments, We are all completely beside ourselves suffers from too much praise and a revealing blurb. There’s something to be said for ignoring blurbs and reviews and choosing a novel simply by it’s cover.


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