Karen Joy Fowler is well known as the author of The Jane Austen Book Club, but she has written six novels in all, and several collections of short stories.
I have read just about all of them, and each has been different to the others. So you could say, that when I notice that Karen Joy Fowler has new book out, I make sure to read it.
Her latest novel is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and I can assure you it is as good if not better than any of her earlier novels.
However, it is a hard novel to review without revealing the most important point of the plot. So here’s an outline without spoilers…
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way
The main character is Rosemary Cooke who when we first meet her is at college, in what she terms the middle of her story. She tells us she is a quiet and lonely young woman and that she used to be an annoying chatterbox in her childhood.
Something happened when she was five years old. Her sister Fern disappeared from her life, and her brother Lowell ran away from home seven years later ostensibly to search for Fern. So she is in mourning for both of her siblings, and distanced from her parents. Although she has learned to suppress her memories, they refuse to be denied.
The quote above from Anna Karenina applies to Rosemary’s family. Fern’s disappearance tore the family apart. They are all traumatized by the loss of their sister/daughter.
Slowly, slowly the novel reveals the secret at the heart of the novel, moving from the middle and back to the past. It is a stunningly clever novel, wonderfully plotted, and the surprise when it comes, about a third of a way through the novel, makes perfect sense after what has been revealed before.
I must admit, I was aware of the surprise, having read a review that gave it away, so it’s best not to read spoiler reviews, but OK if you do, as I found it didn’t spoil my pleasure in the novel, as after the secret is revealed there is so much more to find out about what became of Fern and how it all ends. The cover gives you a clue.
In any case I highly recommend that you read it. It is an engrossing, intelligent novel that approaches the subject of unhappy families and memory in an original and interesting way.