If Rosemary Cooke happened to be telling you a story about stories, instead of a story about the relationships between human beings and animals (and other human beings), she’d probably pause to inform you of a recent study — Rosemary likes to refer to studies. The one I’m thinking of reveals that spoilers are not spoilers after all. Turns out that knowing how a story ends, let alone learning in advance about some mid-plot reveal, does not ruin most readers’ experience of a tale; to the contrary, the results of the study showed that people enjoy stories even more when the plot twists have been “spoiled.”
Anyway, by now you probably already know that Rosemary, the narrator of Karen Joy Fowler’s marvelous and justly celebrated new novel, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” was raised, until the age of 5, with a chimpanzee “sister” named Fern. Rosemary begins her story in the middle, recalling the course of a few months in 1996 when she was as an undergraduate at the University of California at Davis. During this period, Rosemary made and lost a new friend; saw her brother, a fugitive from the law, for the first time in 10 years; was arrested twice and finally learned to face the truth about what happened to Fern. Fern’s non-human nature isn’t explicitly spelled out until a third of the way through the novel, but knowing about it in advance only makes the complexities of Rosemary’s relationship to her feel richer from the very start.
“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is that rare thing, a comic novel that wrestles seriously with serious moral questions. Rosemary has a distinctive, fully realized voice on the page, which ought to make the audiobook version of the novel easy to perform. Too often, though, books like this receive a disastrous narration. (Last year’s Exhibit A: Kathleen Wilhoite’s botched reading of Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go Bernadette?”) Fortunately Orlagh Cassidy’s performance of “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is exactly what’s called for: supple and fluent, able to accommodate both Rosemary’s wisecracks and her grief. The best audiobook narrators sometimes feel like an ideal friend who’s sharing the book with you, while others (most often when reading first-person narration) seem to speak for the book itself. Cassidy’s performance here belongs to the latter kind.
Rosemary has the wry manner of a person who has felt overshadowed most of her life — by her scientist parents, by her charismatic brother, by the pretty theater student who befriends her at Davis, but most of all by Fern. She also blames herself for Fern’s sudden exile from the Indiana farmhouse where the two of them grew up, side by side. At home, Rosemary never felt remarkable enough, but at school she was a freak, the “Monkey Girl,” with an assortment of peculiar habits acquired by close association, from the age of 2 months, with a non-human primate.
But if life’s spotlight flits past people like Rosemary, they are nevertheless born to narrate novels, spying out the revealing little things that everybody else misses, dancing elaborate minuets of charming self-deprecation, forever undermining cover stories, including their own. Recalling a “crude joke” her father makes every Thanksgiving, she remarks, “If the joke were witty, I’d include it, but it wasn’t. You’d think less of him and thinking less of him is my job, not yours.” It’s astonishing how much Fowler conveys about the dynamics of this (and so many) families in that seemingly casual quip, and the novel is full of such passages. They have to be delivered lightly, but not tossed off, and with great precision of timing. Cassidy nails it every time.
Later in the novel, confronted by her brother with things that most people avoid thinking about — and with what it means to decide not to think about those things — Rosemary nudges the reader toward greater self-scrutiny: nudges, but doesn’t push. This, too, calls for a glancing emphasis that Cassidy executes flawlessly. Fern’s story is a tragedy made all the more aching for Rosemary’s elliptical approach to it. She can only guess at the truth, but what she guesses is a great pressure felt behind everything she says, however abbreviated or controlled. Cassidy is brilliant at conveying the oceans of feeling behind Rosemary’s tersest observations. Fowler knows how to make her story funny and sad and disturbing and revelatory by erecting a space in which her reader is allowed to feel all of that for herself. And in Cassidy, she’s received a collaborator who knows just how that works.
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June is Audiobook Month, and to celebrate, 30 professional narrators have donated their services to benefit the literacy project Reach Out and Read. Every day in June, the blog Going Public (which offers streaming recordings of works in the public domain) will post one (and sometimes two!) recordings of classic short works by authors ranging from Anton Chekhov and Andrew Lang to H.P. Lovecraft and Abraham Lincoln. The narrators include two particular favorites of mine, Simon Vance and Xe Sands, the founder of both the blog and this special project, Speaking Freely. The Speaking Freely recordings can be listened to free of charge for a week after they’re posted, and you can purchase individual recordings (and eventually, the entire package) here.