We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

A family decides to do a psychological study by raising an infant chimpanzee alongside their infant daughter. Chaos and emotional trauma ensue. Readers are left to question issues of morality pertaining to animal rights as well as the validity of memory. Sounds compelling, right? Wrong. I was long past due for a disappointing read, and I did not expect We Are All Completely Beside Ourselvesto be the novel to break my joyous run of good books.

The novel is narrated by one half of the experiment, Rosemary. Now a young adult, Rosemary is troubled by her upbringing and haunted by the loss of her “sister,” Fern, who was removed from her home when Rosemary was six years old. Rosemary’s narrative takes up the bulk of this book, and her story desecrates what could have been a compelling tale. The backstory is fascinating, for it is filled with facts regarding actual chimp studies that sought to study the capacity for language in primates. Fowler succinctly relates the foundation behind the Cooke family’s experiment, but it’s difficult to care about the actual plot when it is so completely overshadowed by the facts behind it. Rosemary’s existence is defined by the experiment, and the book is primarily composed of her complaints and attempts to overcome this travesty of an upbringing. Really, it doesn’t sound like it was that awful, but readers are pushed to feel for Rosemary in a way that I found impossible. She’s not likable. She’s an unambitious 22-year-old college junior with no regard for the fact that she has been wasting her parents money for years on an education that she doesn’t seem to want in the first place. Fowler places the emphasis on Rosemary’s story, and only does this story get good when Rosemary is spouting out facts regarding primate studies. These moments of intrigue are few and far between.

The real problem is that Fowler should have just written a nonfiction book on one of the real-life subjects of such a study. There were several chimp language studies in which the foster family raised a young chimp alongside their own child/children, and these are truly fascinating accounts. The plot here just feels very strained – Fowler had some great stuff to say regarding primate language studies, and she forced a plot around those ideas. The result is a choppy and awkward story filled with random moments of clarity and insight.

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human is what Fowler should have done. Hess’s nonfictional account is not at all constrained, since it beautifully expands on the alluring background information that Fowler awkwardly coerced into a stupid plot.

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