“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” by Karen Joy Fowler, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY, 308 pages, $26.95.
It takes quite a lot of talent to write a successful novel in the first person, and this one is a winner.
The protagonist is Rosemary Cooke, and she recalls her life’s experiences in bracing and convincing prose.
Her family life is difficult and sad, and she chronicles it from the time she was a child until the present, when she is nearly 40 years old.
We learn about her friends, especially Harlow Fielding, with whom she spends a little while in jail, and Lowell, her brother, in and out of trouble of one kind or another.
But the major curiosity in her family is Fern, a chimpanzee, with whom she lives for several years. They sleep together, go to movies together, play together with other children, imitate one another’s distinctive mannerisms.
Because Rosemary doesn’t want Fern to be alone, she invents Mary, an imaginary friend (common in childhood), also a chimp. You would think that this would strain credulity past believing, but the author is a skillful storyteller, and we are participants in this strange friendship, one, of course, that could not last forever.
When Fern squeezes a kitten to death (unintentionally), she is obliged to leave the family and go to a zoo with others of her kind, not a happy solution for either Fern or Rosemary.
In the telling, we meet Vince, Rosemary’s father, Joe her father’s father, Donna, her mother’s mother, and Fredericka, her father’s mother.
Ezra Metzger is manager of the apartment in which she lives, Russell is a neighbor, and Arnie Haddick is a police officer with whom she is better acquainted than she would wish.
These are only a few of the people we meet in this strange and compelling tale, as we try to absorb what it must be like to be actual friends with an animal of another species.
Fern falls in the snow. “When Fern stands up, she is powdered head to toe like a doughnut. We are so excited that, in the strangely illuminating phrase my mother favors, we are completely beside ourselves.”
Here’s another example of the author’s prose style: “He tried to involve his father in the celebration, but Grandpa Joe had fallen asleep at the table, mid-sentence, like a man hit by a spell. In retrospect, this was the descending doom of Alzheimer’s, but we didn’t know that then and were affectionately amused.”
The author acknowledges, at the end of the book, that the story isn’t finished yet, not the happening of it ... it’s just the telling that she is done with. There’s an insight one may carry to many other imaginary tales (novels).
Once the reader accepts the underlying premise, that “human” relationships are possible with other than humans, one can enjoy a great tale by a talented writer.
Melvyn Schreiber is a physician at the University of Texas Medical Branch.