It’s not until more than 75 pages into the story that the reader finds out why the unhappy family in Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful, gripping new novel is unhappy in its own unique way. In “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” the author first lays some well-trod novelistic groundwork: middle-class Midwestern family, alcoholic father, delinquent brother, emotionally fragile mother, favored and attention-claiming sister, damaged narrator. But wait. What unfolds is a family saga with a twist.
While tempted to keep the twist secret, or at least to shout “spoiler alert!,” I’m going to spill the beans — not just because the secret is given away on the back cover of the book or because this novel is not a mystery devoted to red herrings and bait-and-switch tricks. Rather, the point of the story is not the surprise itself but its position as the crucible, the spectacular heart from which everything else spins.
Who better than Rosemary Cooke, the novel’s compelling narrator, to let us in on what she so coyly keeps from us: “I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a chimpanzee.” Treated as a human child in a psychological experiment set up by Rosemary’s professor father, the chimpanzee, Fern, has a profound effect on all of them. Rosemary, who calls herself monkey girl and climbs, bites, and jumps on chairs and tables, notes, “She was my twin, my fun-house mirror, my whirlwind other half. . . . I loved her as a sister, but she was the only sister I ever had, so I can’t be sure; it’s an experiment with no control.”
No control, indeed. As a child, Rosemary herself is helpless. The two big turning points in her life — in the lives of the entire Cooke family — are bookended by Fern’s arrival when Rosemary is only a month old and departure when Rosemary is 5. These events, and others, assemble into a convoluted chronology like scattered puzzle pieces, which, by the end of the novel, all fall into place. Slyly and to great effect, Rosemary starts her story in the middle, in 1996, when she’s 22 and “meandering through my fifth year at the University of California, Davis.” The narration switches back to 1979, during the weeks she was sent to her grandparents in Indianapolis. A chatty, outgoing 5-year-old, she comes back to a new house with only three bedrooms, a mother suffering from a breakdown, a father drinking too much, a brother on the lam. “I hadn’t been given away. Someone else had,” she observes. She turns silent. “Those weeks I spent with our grandparents in Indianapolis still serve as the most extreme demarcation in my life, my personal Rubicon. Before, I had a sister. After, none.”
Fern’s absence leaves the whole family with a “shared and searing grief.” Rosemary’s brother frees all the rats from his father’s lab. Her parents argue, causing Rosemary to reflect “that their marriage had become the sort Inspector Javert might have had with Jean Valjean.” Even decades later, Fern’s shadow still stalks her as she suffers deep loneliness and struggles to make sense of who she is and the nature of her family. What is normal, she wonders. Talking about sex, she says, “It seemed as if I couldn’t get even the instinctual, mammalian parts of my life right.”
But, of course, normal is hardly a word to describe such circumstances. What actually happened to Fern is the question that haunts Rosemary. Fowler moves around in time and geography until we discover, in the present of 2012, why Fern was sent away and Rosemary’s role in her expulsion. It’s no coincidence that “Rosemary” means remembrance, that she is Fern’s voice, her chronicler. And that Fern is named after the Fern in “Charlotte’s Web,’’ “the only human in the book who can talk with nonhumans.”
Though Fowler documents historical experiments of humans with chimpanzees, discusses the treatment of animals and man’s cruelty to them, there is never any suggestion of an agenda. Instead, Fowler has given us the gift of a splendid novel. Not only is the story fascinating, moving, and beautifully written, but also it ripples with humor; its quirky characters include a puppet named Madame Defarge and a Seinfeldian assortment of apartment dwellers. Layered with a huge moral compass and enormous humanity, this portrait of a family one-fifth simian will, nevertheless, touch and delight every human.Mameve Medwed is the author of five novels and lives in Cambridge.