Fowler's 'Beside Ourselves' offers dark journey into woman's past
The Cooke family at the heart of Karen Joy Fowler's amazing new novel isn't so much dysfunctional as it is broken. Some members are present. Others are missing. All of them are struggling. Why? “(W)here you succeed will never matter so much as where you fail,” says daughter Rosemary. The Cookes' failures — as parents, as siblings, as human beings — have left them strangers to each other, incomplete and unhappy.
Author of five other novels and three story collections, Fowler is best known for the pleasant but lightweight “The Jane Austen Book Club,” a romantic comedy that qualifies as a good candidate for summer reading. If you pick up “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” hoping for more of the same, you may be shocked, but you will not be disappointed. Fowler's sixth novel is a different sort of beast, dark and devastating and ambitious, asking hard questions about science, communication and psychology and evaluating the nature of responsibility and our flawed selves.
The novel opens in 1996, when Rosemary is 22, a student at the University of California, Davis. “(S)tart in the middle,” she decides, an easy choice for someone whose childhood memories are unreliable. There are also troubling gaps in what Rosemary knows about her past. So, she starts breezily with an amusing incident in the school cafeteria: A girl starts a loud, aggressive fight with her boyfriend, and impetuously Rosemary joins in. Crossing a campus cop lands both girls in jail. “The bars went all the way to the top of the cell,” Rosemary reports. “I checked to be sure; I'm a pretty good climber.”
But the experience sets off a chain of events that forces Rosemary back to her past. She goes home to Bloomington, Ind., where her parents still live (though not in the house she grew up in). An NIH grant is keeping her father busy with research; a secret drinker, he keeps her mom “on high alert,” says Rosemary. “I worried sometimes that their marriage had become the sort Inspector Javert might have had with Jean Valjean.” Serious though Fowler is here, she hasn't lost her playful touch.
Rosemary's brother Lowell and sister Fern aren't there; she hasn't seen either in years. But she remembers clearly how things were:
“In most families, there is a favorite child. Parents deny it, and maybe they truly don't see it, but it's obvious to the children. Unfairness bothers children greatly. It's always hard to come in second ...
“I was our mother's favorite child. Lowell was our father's. I loved our father as much as our mother, but I loved Lowell best of all. Fern loved our mother best. Lowell loved Fern more than he loved me. When I lay out these facts, they seem essentially benign. Something here for everyone. More than enough to go around.”
But things went wrong anyway, and now Rosemary has to face her fears about the disappearances of Fern and Lowell, the complicity of her parents and her own guilt in what happened to her family.
Rosemary's voice is achingly memorable, and Fowler's intelligent discourse on science vs. compassion reshapes the traditional family novel into something more universally relevant. The Cookes are unlike other families and like them at the same time, and through Rosemary's unique perspective Fowler forces us to confront some tough truths. This brave, bold, shattering novel reminds us what it means to be human, in the best and worst sense.
Connie Ogle is a staff writer for the Miami Herald.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Starkey: Would one big move kill Pirates’ future?
- Steelers offensive linemen looking to build on strong 2013 finish
- Liriano, Pirates beat Giants, inch closer to lead in NL Central
- Pirates inquire about Red Sox LHP Lester
- Former walk-ons may lose scholarships under Penn State’s Franklin
- Reports include ‘aliens’ as origin of Russian holes
- Father, son killed in East Huntingdon crash
- Penn Township man seeking gun permit accused of bringing heroin to courthouse
- Rivers Casino sued by family of patron who died in car crash
- Shelling of UN school kills 15 as Gaza war rages
- Pirates think Mercer’s defense deserves more credit