There have been countless books devoted to the story of families. Families who look perfect on the surface and only show their cracks behind closed doors. Families that couldn’t hide their dysfunction if they wanted to. And those consisting of pretty average people dealing with an extraordinary situation. In Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the Cooke family is a combination of all of those families.
Rosemary Cooke grew up the youngest daughter in a family of five. Her father was a psychology professor at Indiana University, her mother was a non-practicing scientist, she had an older brother named Lowell and a sister named Fern. Their family life was close, filled with seemingly normal memories of family dinners, stories read to the children, and climbing trees. Everything seems typical until we find out that Fern is not a real sister nor a human. Fern is a chimpanzee. She was brought into the Cooke family as a three month old infant, just one month after Rosemary was born, as part of an experiment to view the differences between human and chimpanzee children when raised in the exact same environment.
Establishing a close bond, Fern and Rosemary neither believed they were anything less than blood sisters. Fern believed herself to be human and Rosemary took on traits that would eventually cause her to be given the nickname “monkey girl” at school. When the girls are five, the experiment has a sudden and abrupt ending that threatens to tear their family apart. Each member of the family reacts differently and carry their own understanding and memory of how the ending occurred.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is ultimately a story of memories — how they form our relationships, vary wildly within participants of the same experience, and affect our approach to the world. To be completely honest, I think my heart broke at least four times while reading this book. If you’re tired of reading the same family stories over and over, pick this up. It’s anything but typical, beautifully written, and one of the most memorable (pun intended) books I’ve read in recent years.
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