Thursday, July 25, 2013

Karen Joy Fowler's Book Could Have You Beside Yourself

I happened to hear a Diane Rehm show last week on which she interviewed Karen Fowler about her new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I love that Diane devotes a full hour of her show to writers and their books several times a month. One always senses that Diane has, in fact, read the book and has probing questions prepped and ready to ask. This interview was no exception. In fact, it prompted me to run - literally, as it's only one block away - to the library that very afternoon in search of a copy.

Let me say, first up, that this is a very serious book but that Ms. Fowler has a wonderfully wry sense of humor that helps ease the pain. She has obviously done a tremendous amount of research and though this is a work of fiction I suspect that it's based on many stories out there that are true.

A few days after Rosemary Cooke is born, her parents decide to take part in an experiment led by her dad, a professor at the university in Bloomington, Indiana. An "adopted" sibling of the same age is brought to live in their home, to be raised beside Rosemary as her sister. The only issue is that Fern is a chimpanzee. And while this may sound funny at first, you'd need to really stop and think about all that this implies before laughing. Ms. Fowler is not amused.

Try to imagine the psychological ramifications of introducing two newborns of differing species to each other and allowing their growth and progress to become your life's work. Graduate students come and go, each movement, each speech pattern, each behavior from thumb sucking to toilet training is recorded and comparisons made. Rosemary is a talker, asked to share her every thought for the researchers' notebooks. Fern's vocabulary is pretty impressive too, but she uses sign language to indicate her wants and needs.

Fern and Rosemary compete for their older brother Lowell's undivided attention, creating a sibling rivalry like any among three brothers and sisters. But when Fern and Rosemary are around five years old, the animal nature of the chimpanzee (not that we aren't all animals, but that's for the book discussion) manifests itself in a way that results in Fern's being torn from the only family she's ever known a rending that causes the Cooke family to implode.

Karen Joy Fowler has filled her latest novel with common themes, the trickiness of memory, jealousy, family dynamics, and separation, but she presents them in a truly unique way and in beautifully rendered prose. She prods readers to ponder their feelings about animal research and scientific achievement. Is it worth it? How much is too much? How sentient are these beings that we inject with diseases and tumors? What happens to them when we're "finished" with them?

I know I have some friends out there who would really love to be provoked by this novel. Beth Conrad, Janice Danzig, I'm talking to you. I'd love to have you read it and let me know what you think. Let's chat.


TooManyBooks said...

Another book that's on my list! Seems like you are zooming through books now that you've retired! 111 days for me. Miss you. Hope all is well.

Sallyb said...

You're right! The only way that I'll catch up to you on the book count. Things are good. Alan and Sharon may be coming next weekend.