We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselvesby Karen Joy Fowler
ISBN 9780399162091

I started reading this on New Year’s Day, full of the enthusiasm that comes from kicking off a new year of reading. The enthusiasm that comes from the belief that this time, I really will read more, and I really will write about what I’m reading close to finishing it.

I chose well. I had to work on the 2nd, and could hardly wait to curl up with the little less than half the book I had left. That wasn’t about my enthusiasm for reading in general, but for seeing how this story in particular would play out.

I have read enough Fowler to know the unexpected and the seemingly strange would happen, but that it would make sense in the story. Also, that I would find myself admiring her use of language, the careful but not precious turns of phrase, the humor with a bit of dark twist.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves delivered on all these things. I sometimes wonder, given every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, if there are still new ways to tell the stories of that unhappiness, or rather new ways to tell it well. Fowler’s book proves there was at least one more.

There is one obvious difference in Fowler’s version of the unhappy family story — that in other hands would have seemed gimmicky, or bizarre beyond the bounds of even the familial bizarre — but it isn’t the only difference. Imagine a family’s story told mostly by looking back (not end of life looking back, this is barely middle aged looking back) not to beginning, not to the end, but to the middles we are all living in. There is regret, but the book isn’t so much about regret is it is about how family does or doesn’t define us; what we do or don’t owe to family members; how they shape us and how we shape ourselves in response. Then there the are tricks of memory, of perspective, and the tricks in connecting to other human beings.

What, in fact, does it mean to be human, a normal human being?

I suppose you can read almost any story as an attempt to answer that question. The way Fowler goes about it in her version, from her choice of siblings to the choice to somewhat conspiratorially address “you” the listener, probably shouldn’t work. But it does work, it worked so well I find myself continuing to think about it (it the book and it the question).

Recommended. My reading year is off to a good start.

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