Book Reviews, Contemporary

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


I read the novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in one day. I just didn’t want to put it down. Part of me was attracted to the book by its success, both commercially and critically. Another part of me was drawn in for far more superficial reasons; its beautiful cover art and intriguing title. Yet though the story was mysterious and kept me hooked, when I finished it I felt dissatisfied with the way it had panned out.

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler’s book follows Rosemary Cooke, who doesn’t like to talk about her family. When the book starts, she hasn’t seen her brother in almost a decade and her sister in an even longer time. She slowly tells us her story, and that of her family and her secrets begin to unravel. Although the book is incredibly slow-paced – the major revelation of the story happens around the page 80 mark, and later eventful parts of the plot don’t happen until right near the end – this doesn’t feel so bad because of the way it is told. Rosemary starts ‘at the middle’, then goes back to the end of the beginning, then forward to the beginning of the end, and right at the end of the book, we are treated to the beginning and end of her story. However, even this ‘ending’ did not feel complete, and it felt like the writer had got bored, and just stuck an ‘ending’ into the book, explaining everything half-heartedly and quickly so that they didn’t have to continue.

Another complaint that I have of the book is that the second half of the book in particular felt like a propaganda pamphlet. Without giving too much of the story away, a major theme of the book is animal testing and cruelty. What I didn’t like was that this theme wasn’t presented as truly imbedded into the storyline. Instead it felt thrust upon the reader, along with facts, stories, news clippings and scientific theories. Rather than giving the reader the space to think about the topics in the book and question them, the book grabs to by the arm and forcefully drags you to its conclusion within the space of a few paragraphs. Although I do believe that art should make us face things we subconsciously avoid, and withholding aspects of the story until halfway through when the reader is already hooked is perhaps the only way to get readers to listen to your point, I would rather be given the chance to piece things together rather than be forced.

The book's full cover art
The book’s full cover art

On a positive note, I found this novel easy to read and the mystery surrounding the story kept me reading in a search for answers. Rosemary’s perspective was interesting and I think Fowler did a good job at making her narration believable. Particularly, the way we questioned Rosemary’s memories, especially in the second half of the book, and learned things along with Rosemary was done especially well as it felt like we couldn’t fully trust any of the characters.

Overall, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was a book that, although I did enjoy reading, did not reach my expectations. So much of the last few chapters of the book felt like an ‘info dump’ and the ending itself felt too superficial. All the time I was reading the book I was waiting for an explosive ending, or at least something equally big to the big reveal at the beginning of the book to happen later, but unfortunately it never came.


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