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 The Miami Herald’s book editor.