Rosemary's started college, and she's decided not to tell anyone about her family. Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. There was something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. You'll have to find out for yourself what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other.
©2014 Karen Joy Fowler (P)2014 W F Howes Ltd
"A dark cautionary tale hanging out, incognito-style, in what at first seems a traditional family narrative. It is anything but." (Alice Sebold)
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"My family and other animals?"
Let’s start with the positive. The basic idea and main themes of the book are interesting and have lots of potential. There is a nice touch of humour evident, mainly early-on. There are some passages that are well observed: some touching and others quite painful. So, plenty of material for a good listen.
However, the narrator is at best variable – there are times she sounds bored, then things pick up but just when I think she's doing okay, she puts a smile in her voice when it is inappropriate. Maybe she didn’t understand what she was reading? The book is in part a wry and unusual perspective of family dynamics for a child growing up. In part, it is a diatribe on animal rights. The first of these parts would make for an easy listen, the second not, so there would have to be great skill to blend the two different elements successfully. This book doesn’t and what you get is a clumsy bodge. So, a surprising choice for Man Booker shortlist, presumably in part for being unusual. And in audible version let down by the narration.
"Innovative, easy to read, challenging"
This is a remarkable, original, ambitious book, that succeeds in being readable, truthful (mostly) and intellectually challenging without once sounding pretentious or too clever for its own good.
It is not a conventional novel in its approach to narrative.
It starts in the middle or, at least, it claims to, although, by the end, even the narrator is no longer sure this is true.
This no-linear novel moves backwards and forwards in time not so much to develop the narrative but to trace the source of an idea, the emergence of a memory, the evolution of a state of mind, the scabbing over and unpicking of scars left by real or imagined guilt.
Rosemary, the narrator, is both disarmingly honest and regularly unreliable. She lies by omission, for our own good, or because she can't face telling the truth, or because someone cannot bear to hear the truth. She tells the truth and nothing but the truth but is not entirely sure that the whole truth is either desirable or possible. Rosemary is not always the same Rosemary. Sometimes she is the Rosemary in the middle, remembering Rosemary at the beginning. Sometimes she is Rosemary at the end remembering Rosemary in the middle. Sometimes Rosemary is lost, even to herself. Sometimes Rosemary is hiding, from others, from her memories, from what she might have done and from what she did not do. And yet Rosemary is consistently and uncompromisingly herself.
Now this may make it sound like "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" is one of those "It must be art because it's boring me to death and I only understand part of it" Booker Prize Listed novels. It isn't. It is way too subtle for that. This as an easy to read book that made me laugh and cry and want to turn the page but which also set up whispers in my head, like subliminal implants, if subliminal implants worked, that made me review my understanding of concepts and ethic and consider why the novel is constructed the way it is.
This is a big themes book: love, guilt, family, humanity are all front and centre. Behind them, like a deliberately discordant soundtrack designed to create foreboding, are challenges on the nature of memory ("like photographs that eventually replace the moment they were meant to capture", the tension between narrative and truth, the immutability (or not) of character, and the mind-bending, soul-shaping gravitational pull of the love between two sisters.
I'm not going to share anything about the plot. I picked "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" up because I'd enjoyed Fowlers' "The Jane Austen Book Club" a decade or so ago and I liked the first few paragraphs of the prologue. There is a big reveal in the book, that doesn't occur until Part 2. There's a reason why it's there. Personally, I'm not convinced that the reason is a good reason but I'll leave it as the author's call.
The downside of the big reveal is that, for me, it made Part 1 less compelling. The Rosemary we see in Part 1 is hard to engage with. Yes, she was a vulnerable child once, deserving of sympathy and of love, but at the middle of story, which here is the beginning, she is in her twenties and at once passive and unhappy. Part 1 was like listening to a (very long) TED Talk or an article on "Fresh Air" in PBS radio, it was charming and witty and sometimes surprising but it didn't really grab me.
By the end of Part 1, about the same time as, but not solely attributable to, the big reveal, the veneer of wit and charms begins to rub away and we see something much less appealing and much more compelling, underneath.
I was already familiar with much of the content covered here on the study of animal behaviour and intelligence and with the views and actions of the ALF but Fowler made me see it all with fresh eyes. She made it personal and important and more than a little shameful.
"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" is a book I know I will read again and get even more from. Even on the first read, I was marvelling at how Fowler changed my view of events and people and relationships time and again. This wasn't cheating. It was more like using time-lapsed photography to show the changes that normally happen too slowly for us to register.
If you enjoyed "The Jane Austen Book Club" then you will still find the wit and the eye for character in "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" but you will also see that Fowler has used the intervening decade to become a true master of her craft.
This novel is funny and an easy read (listen), yet also profound and a little disturbing. I really related to the protagonist - no mean feat considering her early childhood was odd, to say the least whilst avoiding spoilers.
I also liked the narrator.
A top choice, highly recommended! So glad to hear that it's on the Booker longlist!
"Avoid avoid avoid!"
I'm not sure which was more dull, the story or the narration. This book should come with a warning hazard: might cause drowsiness! Save your credit and give it a miss. The central character is so boring, endlessly navel gazing about her lost "sister". But the brutal truth is the loss has no impact on the reader. In fact, once you've discovered the sister's secret the story becomes vaguely laughable, ridiculous even. I wanted to shake "Rosie" and shout "grow up! You're bleating about NOTHING." Ok, rant over, save to say that Katherine Mangold's narration is ear bleedingly awful.
"Utopia is not utopia for everyone."
I will not discuss the plot or the theme just the merits of this book.
it is as beautiful as it is sad; it is not as funny as it is real which can be funny at time. it is brutally honest, I would say painfully so; perhaps the most honest book about us the contemporary us, humanity us, western science, money driven society and yet it is a book about a family a nuclear family is all the senses you can get out of that word.
It explores language and communication and question their very essence. But mostly it is about regret and love and the power they have in our lives.
I loved the reader in this book, she was natural and created believable voice characters.
"Terrible delivery, but reasonably worthwhile book"
I was initially deeply dismayed by the narrator's voice and style. It's the worst flat nasal American, almost entirely devoid of inflection. She's reading, rather than bringing it to life. As a result, some of the writing - particularly where a story or characterisation nuance turns on an inflected word - gets flattened and lost. There's also no attempt to differentiate voices, occasionally leading to some confusion on my part over who was speaking.
But once you get past this (and you do tune it out after a while; maybe it's in keeping with the narrator's age) the book is worthwhile. Not hugely, though... I still don't get why it was Booker-longlisted - it's a sort of B-minus piece, rather than the A* I expect from the Booker longlist. It's inventive, reasonably imaginative, and it has a kind of American college-kid angst bordering on depression that calls to mind Douglas Coupland and J. D. Salinger. And the title is clever - I liked the way it changed its meaning as the story progressed. It begins with a reference to an early episode with the children playing in the snow, 'beside themselves' with delight, but later comes to indicate the way that they are all 'beside themselves' with more negative emotions - rage, in Lowell's case, numbness in Rosemary's.
It's an engaging idea - and for all my criticism, my heart bled for Rosemary, Lowell and Fern, the three central characters - but as a piece of writing, it could have been more thoughtfully delivered. Having Rosemary narrate it from a single temporal point of view - her college career - bypasses the opportunity to narrate earlier memories from an earlier point of view, making her more complex as a character and aligning her more with her 'sister', Fern. This is not a first novel, but it has a lot of first-novel feel about it. For instance, there's too much 'putting in a bit of past history' just immediately before she needs to refer to it in the present, making it seem as if she's not in control of her material - although it's not a complex plot.
"Ignore idea of a 'twist' for more satisfying read"
I would; I think Fowler is a very talented writer, but this subject possibly obliges her to write in great slabs of 'reported' events, which tend to nullify some moving writing.
I think the ending goes some way to recovering the previous two-thirds of book. It justifies Fowler's approach, but it doesn't quite rescue it.
I wouldn't seek her out. The marriage of her somewhat stoner monotone with the psychologically distant and unreliable narrative made for quite a dreary listen. There were quite a lot of mispronunciations too, which may indicate the product was rushed a little.
It inspired me to look into how far companies were go in securing the safety and effectiveness of their products. A vexed and emotive area indeed.
This book has largely been promoted on its 'twist' on page 77; I strongly recommend you don't see this as a twist, but as a necessity in getting the reader to look at the subject in a particular way, i.e. by dropping their prejudices. That's not a twist, and the book doesn't benefit from looking at it as one.
Given all the hype, I thought I would really enjoy this book but sadly the story didn't have much substance. I feel it could have been so much stronger and I ended up frustrated by the plot. The narrator, however, is really engaging. I sometimes struggle with American accents in audiobooks but I really liked her honey butter voice.
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