Review: ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a very well loved book. At the mention of it, many readers I know get a look of happy adoration. Alternatively, they start busily asking questions, desperate to share their love of it.

I picked this up a few years ago, at the time when it was everywhere, but about halfway through I put it down one day and didn’t have the urge to pick it up again, something I’ve mentioned a few times before. It’s possibly worth noting that I had slightly negative connotations of Fowler’s writing before this, remembering my mother’s disappointment in The Jane Austen Book Club years ago. If there’s any opinion I trust on an homage to Austen it’s my mother, who can provide a Jane quote for any occasion.

So all of that notwithstanding – second time around, I have actually finished the book. And while I recognise all of the things which people love in it… I still didn’t fall in love myself.

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It’s difficult to write a comprehensive review of this book without spoilers, as the plot turns on a major twist about a third of the way through. If you have been drawn to it for whatever reason and think you will enjoy it – go, read it before hearing any other opinions. Go in knowing as little as possible.

As to the twist – I remember enjoying that moment first time around, but for me the narrative lost some momentum from then on, though I struggle to pinpoint why. It doesn’t answer all available questions, in fact it raises plenty more.

But it does settle something which has been curious about the story so far – perhaps that slight anxiety in the prose is what I connected with up to that point. In fact most of the plot is muddled in my recollection – possibly due to the structural tendency for the narrative to flick back and forth, although I don’t usually find this a problem.

Undeniably, it is a fascinating read – Fowler interestingly excavates the quirks and peculiarities of relationships and interaction, of growing up. It is incredibly quotable, for example, by opening the book on a random page I find: The sunset you see is always better than the one you don’t.wp-1488564657949.jpg

In the end, I think this my enjoyment of Rosemary’s story is actually a casualty of when I read it – rushing through things is necessary for a reading list. But there are two modes in which I enjoy a book – critical and emotional – and while certain things need only fulfill one, the books I really fall head-over-heels for are the ones which entice both senses. I can see all of the mechanisms working here to pull on my heartstrings, but wasn’t moved as fully as I wanted to be.

I want to adore this book, I really do. Perhaps years from now I will come back to it and find that I do. But for now I have to put it aside as brilliant – but not for me.

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