Review by: Kristin Dringoli
Counseling and Advising Center
Berklee College of Music
What do a chimp, a college student, and the burnt out remnants of an animal laboratory have in common? In author Karen Joy Fowler’s evocative and insightful novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, this seemingly bizarre question is eloquently answered. As most advisors are aware, student development during college is about far more than academics. Questions of identity, ethics, and family are constantly being examined and reexamined as students develop, learn, and shift their perspectives. Through the narrative voice of the novel’s main character Rosemary Cooke, Fowler provides us with a unique window into the development of a college student whose identity is more complex than most.
The reader first meets Rosemary as she is embarking on her fifth year of college at UC Davis. As a fifth year student, the reader is clued into many of the issues advisors are used to seeing in fifth year students who are not yet preparing to graduate. Frustrated parents, apathetic reactions to academic requirements, identity confusion, and lack of clear goals are all present. However, despite the familiar aspects of Rosemary's current situation the reader gradually discovers that her past is anything but familiar.
As the daughter of a professor focused in the study of animal behavior, Rosemary’s childhood consists of observational notebooks rather than family scrapbooks. While her older brother was seldom the object of behavioral experiments, Rosemary and her sister Fern were constantly being tested and studied. The flashbacks the narrator shares are full of warmth and fondness centered around a sisterly bond as well as a sense of importance Rosemary feels as a subject of her father’s curiosity, but these feelings shift dramatically when Fern disappears. Rosemary is five when this occurs and is still reeling from the effects of the mysterious event seventeen years later. An important point to note at this juncture is that Rosemary's sister Fern is not human but rather a chimpanzee her father brought to their home in order to study alongside Rosemary. How is that for a unique student background?
As the novel continues, Rosemary leads readers through a maze of flashbacks and current events that weave together to create a rich and complex story. At the heart of this story is the question of identity. How did her early childhood with Fern impact her development and who is she now without her sister? The question of ethics is also prominent as the reader examines how Rosemary’s father’s experiments impacted his family and the long-lasting effects such experiments have on the animals that act as their subjects. Lastly, the question of family is examined. What constitutes family and what happens when the family structure falls apart?
As an advisor, I found this Pen/Faulkner winning novel to be a moving and eye-opening read. While undoubtedly entertaining, it can also be used to address important issues and foster the sort of dialogue that many advisors seek when guiding students in their academic and personal development. Whether utilized in a freshman seminar course or introduced to campus learning communities as a springboard for conversations, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves provides fertile ground for the type of reflection and critical thinking that is sure to nurture student development in a unique and memorable way.
We are all completely beside ourselves. (2014). Karen Joy Fowler, Penguin Books. 320 pp., $16.00, (Paperback), ISBN #978-0-14-218082-2, http://www.penguin.com/book/we-are-all-completely-beside-ourselves-by-karen-joy-fowler/9780142180822.