We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is a book I would never have read on my own, and when my book club chose it, I almost decided to skip that meeting because the description of the book looked so awful. I didn’t think I had it in me to deal with yet another author describing yet another boring, dysfunctional family. Fortunately, I think highly enough of my book club meetings that I gave the book a chance. This book may describe a dysfunctional family, but it is completely unlike anything I’d ever read before, and I LOVED the book.
And with that build up, I now can’t really tell you anything else about the book’s plot. To reveal too much would ruin the surprise that occurs in the middle of the story. Instead, I’ll share a couple of the writing techniques and themes that made this book so special.
The writing is immediately engaging, entertaining and humorous, which is good because something had to keep me reading while I was under the impression that the author was making a major writing faux pas. You see, one of the first things I noticed while reading the first third of the book is that the narrator kept describing herself as an extremely talkative child. Over and over she’d tell the reader just how much she talked as a child. She told us, but she didn’t show us. That’s a huge writing no-no. At no point did she convince me that she actually did talk a lot as a child. Then the surprise occurs, and suddenly, the author starts to show everything. It’s a brilliant technique. The book goes through stages, and in that early part, the narrator is keeping a distance between herself and the reader. In the middle, she opens up and reveals the truth about her childhood, and that’s when we get to see just who she really was as a child, why, and how that’s impacted her as an adult.
Which brings up the psychology woven into this tale. It’s brilliant and fascinating. The narrator delves into childhood development and the problem with relying on memories, while at the same time the author has created a narrator whose story we can’t completely believe or trust. As an English major, I always loved the idea of an untrustworthy narrator because it brings up so many interesting questions about how to figure out if something the narrator is saying is true, or if we just have to accept that some things we can’t know for certain. There’s a lot in this book that the reader is forced to question, but the author also gives us enough certainty that it’s not too obnoxious. For me, this combination was just enough to get me thinking about memory and how reliable a memory is, without going over the top and leaving too much open to question.
The book provides a new gauge for sanity and normality, and I’m fairly certain most of us are not completely beside ourselves. However, out of fear of ruining any of the surprise, I won’t get into any of the other psychological aspects that are brought up.
My only disappointment is that the narrator distances herself from the reader again at the end of the story, and that’s when the scene I’d been waiting for occurs. I would have preferred more emotional involvement and connection in that scene, but I can at least accept that there were reasonable literary reasons for the author making that choice.
The other thing I would mention is that this book has some strong animal rights tendencies. I read this as simply being consistent with the character who narrates the book, but I did hear some complaints from people who thought it came across as a political agenda on the author’s part. I didn’t see it as a political agenda, and I thought there are some scenes that depict important differences between people and animals. But I also walked away from the book with the sense that animals are far more emotionally sensitive than we give them credit for. Just something to keep in mind going into the book.
On the whole, this is a wonderful book with an impressively developed main character. More importantly, the book got me thinking about human nature, and it entertained me at the same time. What more can you ask for?
(Note: the descriptions on Amazon have been updated since I ordered the book, and they now reveal the surprise. So read descriptions at your own risk. I think this book is a better read not knowing what the secret is in advance.)