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Sunday, January 5, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler

Putnam, 320 pages, $26.95

This is not a mystery, except as a mystery of the human heart. It is written by Karen Joy Fowler, whose book, At Wit’s End, received Jill’s MBTB star. But, once again, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a mystery. I rarely read a non-mystery during the last five years of Murder by the Book’s life. One of the things I promised myself is that I would get caught up on the non-fiction and non-mystery fiction I had been stockpiling since the dawn of time. It shouldn’t surprise you, however, that 99.9% of my reading post-MBTB has been mystery. I love the genre, in all its many forms and variations.

I reserve the right, prefaced by cautionary statements, to tell you about any grand non-mysteries I’ve read. I wrote about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Dave Egger’s The Circle stretched the crime/mystery/suspense definition, but I wrote about them because I found them peripherally related to suspense, and they were certainly interesting.

This is one of those non-mysteries to which I gave a thumbs-up.

So, of course, having said that, there is a mystery. The narrator is Rosemary Cooke. She is at various times 5, 22 (in 1979), and 40+ years old, but the perspective is backward-looking from the 40+ viewpoint. When she was five, her sister Fern disappeared, she tells us. Her mother suffered a nervous breakdown as a result. Her father, a professor of psychology, took to excessive drink, and Rosemary and her older brother, Lowell, were left to fend for themselves for a while. Rosemary tells us that guilt haunts everyone. Then Lowell ran away from home and was eventually sought by the FBI.

The book mostly follows Rosemary while at UC Davis, at the age of 22. She is unaccountably awkward with people, disastrous in social situations, silent, and rummaging for the remnants of her family. At the age of five, she was “ebullient,” one of her precociously learned words, talkative, and different, especially in one famously significant instance, from other children. When Fern disappeared, the outgoing Rosemary, too, disappeared.

It isn’t just the surprising story that author Fowler does so well. Her language is fanciful, clever, and well-wrought. For instance:
The silence that followed was filled with pity for my mother, who could have married Will Barker if she hadn’t lost her mind and chosen my father, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, fly-fishing atheist from Indianapolis, instead.
No more politics, Grandma Donna had said as a permanent new rule, since we wouldn’t agree to disagree and all of us had access to cutlery.
Is Rosemary an unusually unreliable narrator? This becomes a serious question with this book, more so than with other first-person narratives. Fowler says, “Language does this to our memories — simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies.”

The journey through Rosemary’s "clown car" (what her father calls her brain) is intriguing, moving, and illuminating. Fowler shows us that family is not just a case of genetics.

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