Coming Of Age Story Reminds Us Of Being 'Beside Ourselves'

Karen Joy Fowler's new novel is a memorable coming of age story for our time; a delightful and instructive book about childhood and child rearing, siblings, and family life, told from the distance that adulthood often brings. Alan Cheuse reviews We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

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Our book reviewer Alan Cheuse has been reading a new novel about a family. It's called "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves." The book explores childhood, child-rearing, sibling love and rivalry, profound if familiar topics. But one aspect of this family is highly unusual.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: The Cookes of Bloomington, Ind., are made up of dad and mom, along with their children: Rosemary; her brother, Lowell; and the youngest offspring in the house. She's named Fern. Together, they're engaged in a home life experiment under the auspices of a major American university's psychology department.

The thing is, Fern - whom young Rosemary regards almost as a twin - is an African-born chimpanzee. When Fern gets untimely taken from them, in part because of a nasty childish trick played by Rosemary, the family gets torn apart.

Rosemary, our narrator - who is a 22-year-old college student as the novel opens - has tried throughout her adolescence to keep her monkey sister private. She's twisted her own story and life into a pretzel, to avoid admitting what she takes to be odd and damaging news about herself and her background. As a result, she's not a happy person, distancing herself from friends and occasional lovers, longing to see her estranged brother Lowell again - seems he's run off to join up with the Animal Liberation Front - and emotionally drained from her efforts to come to terms with family.

All sorts of fascinating questions arise from her story: What is freedom? What is captivity? What is animal, and what is human? By the time you get to the last section of the novel, which is absolutely sublime, I have to tell you, you will feel as though Rosemary and Fern are your own siblings. And you, too, may be - as I was - completely beside yourself with a mixture of misery and joy.

CORNISH: Alan Cheuse reviewed "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves," by Karen Joy Fowler. For more updates about books and authors, you can "like" NPR Books on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter - that's @nprbooks.

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