I wasn't sure what it would be. I've had an enjoyable summer of reading, perhaps my most prolific ever: After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman, Everything I've Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, Between the World and Me by Tanehisi Coates, The Other Wes Moore, Paper Towns by John Green. 8 books in 10 weeks isn't a bad number for me, especially considering I worked for most of the summer.
For the last book, I thought about Toni Morrison's God Help the Child, but the mediocre reviews and sort of dull start made me less excited about it. A friend recommended All the Light We Cannot See, but I started it and found it to be trying a little too hard, and didn't think I had time to finish such an epic anyway. Finally, I was watching the superb third season of Orange Is the New Black, and noticed the prominent placement of We Are Completely Beside Ourselves in a compelling scene between Red and Piper:
I did a little bit of research about the book, and without knowing too much, I decided to download it and read it on my Kindle. All I knew from reviews was that this novel details an unusual family, but the narrative hooked me very quickly. It begins in the middle of things, in 1996, when the narrator, Rosemary, is in college; I was also in college in 1996, so immediately recognized some of the cultural allusions the author, Karen Joy Fowler, was including. We soon learn that she is attending college far from her home of Indiana, and both of her siblings have left her parents and haven't been heard from in years. These facts are mentioned in passing, but we don't learn the backstory about this until about 25% through the book, when a twist I did not see coming kind of floored me. The last three-quarters of the novel deal with this "twist" and its repercussions, through compelling flashbacks and scenes that are both smart and poignant.
Fowler is interested in memory here, as well as behavior, both human and animal. And the book is really smart. An idea from a passage very early in the novel: "I don't remember the house so well as the barn, and remember the barn less than the creek, and the creek less than an apple tree my brother and sister would climb to get into or out of their bedrooms. I couldn't climb up, because I couldn't reach the first branch from the bottom, so about the time I turned four, I went upstairs and climbed down the tree instead. I broke my collarbone and you could have killed yourself, my mother said, which would have been true if I'd fallen from the upstairs. But I made it almost the whole way down, which no one seemed to notice. What have you learned? my father asked, and I didn't have the words then, but, in retrospect, the lesson seemed to be what you accomplish will never matter so much as where you fail" is circled about throughout the novel and again at its moving conclusion.
This is a novel that is hard to discuss without giving away the important plot point that occurs a quarter of the way through the book, and I wouldn't want anyone to not have that experience of that shock. But I'll say this: I though Fowler's integration of flashbacks was sometimes awkward and parts dragged a little bit in the middle. I wanted a little bit more resolution to the character of Harlow. But this is a unique and engaging read, funny and moving in all the right ways. The characters all are flawed but earnest; they really care for each other but not always in the right way. I loved the book.
As for its placement in Orange Is the New Black, I can see many connections between the text and that great 3rd season, from the obvious (cages, sisterhood, family) to more thematic (search for meaning, what freedom means, spirituality). Nice placement, Jenji Kohan!
And, now onto the school year. First day for teachers is tomorrow. A nasty bout of food poisoning prevented me from going in today to set up my classroom, but I think I'll be okay tomorrow.