Not completely beside myself... but nearly

The Amazon and Goodreads reviews for Karen Joy Fowler’s We are all Completely Beside Ourselves are mixed. Not in the ‘3 star, some good points, some bad points, I enjoyed it but wouldn’t rave about it’ sense. But in the true sense, as in a split down the middle, half 5 star, half 1 star, “I loved it” or “I loathed it” sense. Like the reviewers are talking alternately about Shakespeare and E.L. James.

I don’t know about you, but books with reviews like this draw me in much more than uniformly positive reviews. It means that the book inspires feelings, good or bad, from those who read it; they are controversial; and you are going to end the book with a sense of ‘wow’ rather than ‘meh’. Plus they always make you wonder which side of the fence you are going to fall. Because like Marmite, you’re not going to feel so-so about it.

Marmite Tweet

Like this famous tweet, (which could have been written about me, I’m also an Ambi-ite), I’m going to have to straddle that fence. Typical reviewer, right? I will commit to this though: WAACBO was good. There were parts of this book that I did really liked, loved even. But like a Greek tragic hero, it has one fatal flaw.

Now this is the point, like any review, where you debate how much to spoil the plot of the book. Unfortunately with this story it is damn near impossible to explain your point of view without spoiling THE main twist in the book. It’s like reviewing Sixth Sense. Go look at Amazon, you can see all the reviewers tiptoeing round it. Some just give up and blurt it out, others are more tight-lipped but then just end up chasing their tails in endless praise, never being able to back it up. It’s even harder for me, as the one thing I found wrong with this story was the plot twist. However, I do hate when things are spoiled for me, so I will do my very best not to ruin it for anyone.

So let’s try and edge our way round it, and try and avoid tripping up over the elephant in the plot hole. Spoiler free plot summary: Rosemary Cooke tells us her personal story, starting in the middle, about the difficulties in her family, and how it affects her as she tries to become her own person as she grows up. Sounds straightforward, and depending on your usual reading material, slightly dull? Just you wait till a quarter of the way though for the ‘big reveal’.

First things first, Fowler can write. This won’t come as a surprise to people who have read The Jane Austen Book Club, but having not read it myself this came as a very pleasant surprise. It’s a good thing too, as it’s what kept me reading. Rosemary as a narrator came off a slightly irritating at times, the plot twist was frankly absurd, but Fowler’s commentary on family life, growing pains, and social dynamics were so good it made all it all worth it. Fowler is so good at these succinct truisms sprinkled along the story, that sum up a mother and daughter relationship, or how isolating life at university can be, they’re enough to leave you reeling.

“Freak or fake, I’d been asking myself ever since I arrived at college, and suddenly here was someone bold enough to be both.”

“Sometimes you best avoid talking by being quiet, but sometimes you best avoid talking by talking.”

“Apparently, all you needed to be considered normal was no evidence to the contrary.”

Quote after quote of observations so beautifully put that you keep reading just for the next one. Each one is like a little nod to the reader. Here’s something we all think, they say, but put it better than you ever could. But here’s the counter point that stops me being in the five-star camp; they are wasted on this book. The story, along with that main twist, (here we’re getting dangerously close to spoiler territory) could make an interesting book on its own. The idea is certainly novel, not without merits, and worth being explored. But it is an insult to Fowler’s writing to have it written in her fabulous realist style. Think Jane Austen’s pithy commentary of the 18th century, while describing an alien invasion. Think Dickens writing a James Bond script. The ideas themselves aren’t terrible, but you would not let such a talented person explore them.

So I started to read a book with mixed reviews, and ended with… mixed feelings. Overall I am very glad I read it, if only to discover such a talented contemporary author. I’m certainly going to read her again. However I can’t help worrying that the members of the Jane Austen book club end up being robots; if that happens I will need to abandon her all together.

comments powered by Disqus