Published: May 30th, 2013
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Length: 8 hours and 57 minutes
Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a family saga with a twist. Unfortunately, the marketing and summaries of the book don’t try very hard to hide that twist, so if you somehow manage to read the book without knowing it, I am very impressed.
The good news is that I knew the twist and it didn’t ruin the book for me, but I do wish I could have experienced it completely fresh. The bad news is that the fact I even mentioned that there was a twist is probably telling you more than you should know.
Fowler is an interesting author. Her early works and short stories are best described as “slipstream” or “magical realism”, but she’s most well-known for The Jane Austen Book Club, a bestseller later adapted into a movie. Nothing fantastical happens in that book or in her newest novel, but as I read them, my awareness of her history as a fantasist was always at the back of my mind.
Even when Fowler’s books are technically realistic, they seem to hover on the edge of the strange. Reality is thin wherever she turns her gaze, even if it’s only upon an overly personal discussion of the complete Austen. That sense of oddness is probably why I’m drawn to her books, regardless of the subject.
Rosemary, the narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, is weird and broken and compelling in a million different ways. She barrels through life, trying to run from her past and her family, but never quite escapes from her many failures and disappointments. She’s an unreliable narrator disappointed by her inability to pin down the truth.
The problem is that she can’t actually remember what happened between her and her sister when they were young, but she knows that it broke her family apart, and isn’t that almost the same thing? Over the course of the novel, Rosemary unpacks her past, dancing towards truth and only veering away when she realizes that her own biases and imaginings have become more authoritative than factual.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is quietly devastating, but it’s also funny and strange and next door to the unreal. Reading it made me misty-eyed more than once, and I always consider that a point in favor of a book. I absolutely loved it.
Full disclosure: Although I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley, I actually listened to the audiobook.