When I was younger, I might have loved this book. It’s exactly the right mixture of literary pretentiousness and unreliable narration that would have tickled the still-forming prefrontal cortex of my young university student brain. I might have written an extremely lengthy review, arguing how brilliant Karen Joy Fowler is for this masterpiece of a novel.
When I was younger, I might have hated this book. It’s a nauseating mixture of literary pretentiousness and unreliable narration that would have annoyed my mature, post-postmodern sensibilities that looked down on anything so trite as the conceits in this book. I might have written an extremely lengthy review, arguing how awful Karen Joy Fowler is for this dumpsterfire of a novel.
Look, I’ve been doing this for a long time. In over a decade, my tastes for literature have changed considerably. They have matured as I have matured from a spritely 19-year-old to a cynical 31-year-old. I’ve gone through my pretentious phase and my counterculture phase and so many other phases, and if you had too much free time you would be welcome to back and read my reviews chronologically to revisit them. I won’t be! So what I mean by the previous paragraphs is that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is one of those books that, depending on your point of view, is brilliant or trash. It’s smart and sophisticated or it’s an overwrought wreck. But after a while, the brilliant stuff and the trash starts to blend together sometimes. In this review, let’s explore why.
Rosemary is an older woman narrating about her college days. Along the way, she unpacks and confronts uncomfortable memories of her childhood centred on her traumatic separation from her sister, Fern. More details would mean major spoilers, so I won’t go into that here. Suffice it to say there’s more than meets the eye to Fern herself or to the reasons why Rosemary’s older brother, Lowell, skipped out before graduating high school to join the Animal Liberation Front and end up a federal fugitive. All in all, these experiences transformed Rose (as she usually calls herself) from a chatty kid into a laconic one. An unexpected and uneasy friendship with spitfire dramatist Harlow upsets Rose’s equilibrium. When Lowell drops into her university town, Rose receives the final nudge to reflect completely on her childhood memories, and most importantly, to confront the truth that she might have buried in her psyche long ago.
This is a book about memory, regret, and the irrational innocence of children. Rose’s college experience is entirely secondary, virtually a frame story to the true narrative, which exists as a series of vignettes Rose relays to us amidst the college life details. These overlapping, interlocking time periods allow Fowler to assemble Rose’s character in a series of facets, letting us view her from different angles to reveal different aspects of who she is. Ultimately, of course, Fowler wants us to think deeply about what Rose’s story says about who we are. Most of us probably didn’t lose a sister in our youth and then have a brother go on the run. But our very sense of self is built on memories that are actually a wobbly tower of cards, Fowler is telling us: nudge one, and the whole thing might very well topple over.
This interrogation of our unreliable memory of childhood is very fascinating to me. Once I realized this is what Fowler was doing, I gave the novel more slack. I was less harsh in my judgment of the writing style—pretty much entirely narration, with a tiny drink of dialogue doled out to us just when we might otherwise be parched. I appreciate that the narrative style is as much a thematic choice as it is a literary one. Rose’s incessant narration is very much not stream of consciousness, yet it has similar attributes (lots of Stuart McLean-esque tangents, for instance). In this way, Fowler captures the sprawling and disorganized nature that is our memory. We don’t remember our lives as a continuous and coherent story, and so when we go to tell our lives as such, we are manufacturing order from the chaos of our consciousness.
This depth is what impressed me about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and why a younger me might be tripping over herself to praise it. However, another version of myself wouldn’t be as kind. The narration I just praised can indeed feel overly much at times. Moreover, Rose herself is a bit of a boring character. This is a common pitfall in literary fiction that relies on an unreliable first person narrator: the author is so intent on channelling so much through this character that they themselves become a shell of a person. That’s very much the case here, where Rose’s personality dims in comparison to everyone around her, from Harlow to Ezra to Lowell. They all have lives of their own. Rose? Not so much, at least not until the epilogue. Rose exists as an authorial conduit if not an actual avatar, and that is a burden.
So, most of the sins you can imagine literary novels commit are present throughout these pages. That was enough to make a part of me dislike, even resent, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. “Just tell me a straightforward story,” my inner critic railed as she turned the page and wept to see yet another meandering flashback. I am glad this is a novel I was able to read on the serenity of my deck and not in the grips of cold and unyielding winter.
So there you have it! I think this novel encapsulates how a single reader may, at different times in her life, receive the same text very differently. It was fun to put myself into the shoes of my past selves and wonder how they might parse this. By the way, in case it wasn’t clear, 2021 Kara liked this book but vaguely resents herself for liking it (that’s the counterculture part of me talking). I’m trying to atone for any past reviews where I have lavished too much praise on an overly-literary and overwrought work, but I also want to give this book its due.