We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is the story of a dysfunctional family. Are there any other kind of family? I’ve only ever read one story about a perfectly happy family and that was a Little Golden Book, appropriately named The Happy Family.*
However, as some famous Russian writer or other said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” **
Rosemary Cooke is the narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. She is a university student in no hurry to graduate when she becomes involved in a fracas and is arrested for damaging property.
Rosemary is socially awkward and has never fitted in with her peers. She hasn’t seen her older brother, who is a fugitive from the FBI in years and there is a mystery surrounding the whereabouts of her sister Fern. Rosemary’s father is a scientist who is angry and distant, and her once-happy mother is sad and quiet. Rosemary continually refers to her childhood as a happier time when she never stopped talking, until something terrible happened to Fern, after which she became silent.
There is a twist in the story that came once I had started to feel settled into the plot. This twist changed everything I thought I knew about Rosemary’s family. I’m not going to spoil the plot for anyone who intends to read this book, as the twist is a major spoiler.
Despite being quite surprised by the twist, I didn’t like or feel a connection with any of the characters in this story. Rosemary was a whinger and I got tired of hearing about how great things were in her childhood, long before the twist explained some of the mystery of Fern’s disappearance. Rosemary sponged off her parents by refusing to grow up, and bowed far too easily to peer pressure. Her character is explained by the twist, but this in turn led to me disliking the choices Rosemary’s family made, which again I can’t say more about without spoiling the plot for others.
The only character in the story who I liked ended up in jail, after being led by another character to do something which again, I can’t talk about here because doing so would spoil the twist in the plot. This character said; “The secret to a good life is to bring your A game to everything you do. Even if all you’re doing is taking out the garbage, you do that with excellence.” Now that’s the type of value that will serve a happy family well.
I think I read The Jane Austen Book Club by this author years ago. I can’t remember anything of the story except for the title, but based on We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I probably won’t revisit this book.
*To be fair, after Mother, Father, Tony and Peggy in The Happy Family got home and went to bed after their day at the sea-side, there wasn’t really anywhere else that my favourite story could have gone. Despite this story not having a romance, a mystery, or even a dilemma, this book always makes me smile.
**Yes, I know, Tolstoy said this in Anna Karenina.