I have read a couple of Karen Joy Fowlers’s earlier books, The Sweetheart Season and The Jane Austen Book Club, both of which I enjoyed, but didn’t love. I liked The Sweetheart Season because it reminded me of the movie A League of Their Own. I remember it being sweet and innocuous, and only memorable because it reminded me of a movie I liked a heck of a lot more than the book itself. But Karen Joy Fowler was from Davis, and I felt like I owed it to our common geography to give her another try. So I read The Jane Austen Book Club and liked it a bit better, especially since some of it actually takes place in Davis! This book actually got made into a movie, which I saw, but not until after I’d read the book. Part of the reason why I didn’t like the movie as much as the book was that in the movie, scenes that specifically took place in Davis in the book were not filmed there, and I knew it. There was also a pretty major plot adjustment made that made the movie more Hollywood/feel-good/less true to the point of the book. This bugged me, but not as much as not filming in Davis. Anyway, at that point I decided I liked Karen Joy Fowler enough to start collecting her other books, some of which sound lovely. Until this week I hadn’t read any of her other books since I read TJABC in 2007, though I now own most of them.
I must have learned that much of We are all completely beside ourselves takes place in Davis sometime before I read it, because when I started it this week I wasn’t surprised that the narrator mentions on page one that she went to UC Davis. What I didn’t quite realize was that the bulk of the action takes place in Davis in 1996, where Rosemary (our narrator) is a fifth year senior. It just so happens that I was also an undergraduate at UC Davis in 1996. Reading books that take place in a place and time where I also was makes me almost giddy. I think it’s because it happens so rarely. For reasons that escape me, there aren’t a lot of books that take place in Davis, California.
We are all completely beside ourselves has a non-linear timeline, which I don’t mind, though I know some people do. Rosemary explains that she starts in the middle of the story because that is what her father always told her to do when she was young and wanted to tell a story when he didn’t necessarily want to listen to the ramblings of a kid: “Skip the beginning. Start in the middle (2).” And that’s what she does.
The middle of Rosemary’s story is the aforementioned Davis, California in the fall of 1996. I really love how she sets the stage here, puts us into 1996 with a couple of paragraphs, to remind us who we were back then. “1996. Leap year. Year of the Fire Rat. President Clinton had just been reelected; this would all end in tears. Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. The Siege of Sarajevo had ended. Charles had recently divorced Diana. Hale-Bopp came swinging into our sky. Claims of a Saturn-like object in the comet’s wake first surfaced that November. Dolly, the cloned sheep, and Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer program, were superstars. There was evidence of life on Mars. The Saturn-like object in Hale-Bopp’s tail was maybe an alien spaceship. In May of ’97, thirty-nine people would kill themselves as a prerequisite to climbing aboard (5).” I just love it. I was transported back to 1996, who and where I was when all these events took place. The middle of the story begins when Rosemary’s brother Lowell’s reenters her life after a ten-year absence. Lowell abandoned his family at eighteen for a life of animal activism, the kind that gets you wanted by the FBI.
Lowell returns for kind of vague reasons. The upshot is that he needs to really disappear, and he needs Rosemary to take over getting updates about the family’s middle child, Fern, who is living in a research lab in South Dakota. Oh, have I not mentioned that Rosemary’s sister is a chimpanzee? That fact is danced around and not explicitly stated until page seventy-seven: “There’s something you don’t know about Mary. The imaginary friend of my childhood was not a little girl. She was a little chimpanzee. So, of course, was my sister Fern. Some of you will have figured that out already. Others may feel it was irritatingly coy of me to have withheld Fern’s essential simian-ness for so long. In my defense, I had my reasons. I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a chimpanzee. I had to move halfway across the country in order to leave that fact behind. It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone. But much, much more important, I wanted you to see how it really was. I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already, you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. You’re thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet…. Fern was not the family dog.” Rosemary’s parents are scientists, and they thought it would be a good idea to raise a chimpanzee alongside their daughter. It was the seventies. In my mind people did crazy stuff like this all the time back then. Fern and Rosemary are raised like sisters, but then something happens when the girls are about five, and Fern is taken to live on a farm with other chimps. Rosemary does not remember why; she just remembers waking up at her grandparents’ house and Fern is gone. Lowell remembers a bit more. He remembers enough to blame Rosemary for Fern’s departure. It’s ultimately more complicated than that, as most things are, but turns out that Fern didn’t go to a farm. She went to the aforementioned lab in South Dakota. Lowell learns Fern’s true fate shortly before he disappears, after running into a former graduate student who studied Fern and Rosemary. She lives a research animal’s life, and it sounds like a sub-optimal one. But don’t worry, despite all this the story still has a happy ending.
We are all completely beside ourselves walks a fine line on the animal research front. My early experience in veterinary medicine took place in a feline research lab at UC Davis, and I initially wanted to go into lab animal medicine after finishing veterinary school, but once I got out of that world I didn’t want to go back. It’s too hard. Not that being a veterinarian at a mixed GP/emergency hospital is a piece of cake, but it’s sometimes possible to win. In my life as an animal researcher, I did not work with primates, but I once got to go on a tour of the Primate Center, which is located far off the main campus, and has a lot of security. The animals housed there are very well-tended and their handlers care about them a lot. The research done at the Primate Center is important and benefits animals as well as humans. That I am extremely ambivalent about lab animals is an understatement. I never, ever saw any research animal mishandled or abused or living in squalid conditions in the ten years I had direct interaction with that world. I’m not saying it was perfection, but it was as good as it could be at the time. Fowler does an extremely good job of conveying the downsides of chimpanzee research without getting preachy. She focuses on Fern, and how it would feel for a chimp who spent the first five years of her life in a home, with people, wearing dresses and climbing trees, to end up in a lab setting. No, it’s not fair. Chimps are more like us than the smaller primates. They know the difference between freedom and captivity. Fern’s story threatened to break my heart, and I am glad that the bulk of chimpanzee research going on in the United States has been stopped.
But this is not just Fern’s story. It’s a family story, and my, is this family a bit of a mess, which is not shocking considering two of the kids in the family vanished without a trace. The survivors do the best they can, but Rosemary’s dad dies a fifty-eight of a heart attack, his life shortened by drink and diabetes. Rosemary, an initially extroverted child, withdraws into herself as she grows up, spurred to this path by the “Monkey Girl” taunts throughout her childhood. Rosemary’s mother retreats to her bed after Fern is taken away, and Rosemary, when she sees pictures of her mom from before that hardly recognizes her as the same joyful woman. At the end of the story, the women of the family have managed a reunion of sorts. Rosemary and her mother have moved to South Dakota, to the town nearest Fern’s lab. The lab has become a chimp sanctuary, not the roomiest one, but the six chimps remaining there are retired. Her mom volunteers at the sanctuary and sees Fern every day. Lowell has finally been caught, and is awaiting trial for domestic terrorism. Not the happiest of endings, but it’s a realistic one.
This book was easy reading, but the subject matter was complicated. I find my mind going in many different directions as I think about it, and I almost want to write another post about it to work through all the family dynamics. Maybe I will.