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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

"We are all completely beside ourselves" by Karen Jay Fowler

Wow. This book starts with a row in a cafeteria. Immediately you are gripped by the narrator and by characters who are created so easily and yet so perfectly. And as the novel moves along and the narrator reveals more and more of the secret history of her dysfunctional family I became captivated by the voice. Perfect phrases such as:

  • "At twenty-two, I had the callowest possible definition of interesting and, by the measure of my own calipers, was far from interesting myself." (p 7)
  • "My brother might very well go to jail ... but he would never ever call." (p 15)
  • The words behind the prison call phone read "Think a head. I thought how that was good advice, but maybe a bit late for anyone using that phone." (p 15)
  • "their marriage had become the sort Inspector Javert might have had with Jean Valjean." (p 18) Could that be more perfect?
  • "Grandma Fredericka was the sort of hostess who believed that bullying guests into second and third helpings was only being polite." (p 19) I know people like that. Me!
  • "Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability." (p 20)
  • "thinking less of him is my job, not yours." (p 20)
  • "Will Barker thought you mother hung the moon" (p 20): I came across this phrase for the first time last month in Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread; perhaps it is a common American expression.
  • "No more politics, Grandma Donna had said as a permanent new rule, since we wouldn't agree to disagree and all of us had access to cutlery." (p 21)
  • "Dead, but then that's also part of God's plan." (p 24)
  • "The lesson seemed to be that what you accomplish will never matter so much as where you fail." (p 25)
  • "He'd applied for a job in the CIA ... I still gave him the best recommendation I could make up on the spot. 'I never see the guy ... unless he wants to be seen.'" (p 32)
  • "And that right there is the difference between me and my brother - I was always afraid of being made to leave  and he was always leaving." (p 54)
  • "Our parents ... never reminisced about the time they had to drive halfway back to Indianapolis because I'd left Dexter Poindexter, my terry-cloth penguin (threadbare, ravaged by love - as who amongst us is not) in a gas station restroom, although they often talk about the time our friend Marjorie Weaver left her mother-in-law in the exact same place. Better story, I grant you." (p 57) I adore the way the narrator's slightly cynical voice is dripped in with such perfect precision.


The first quarter was fed on tiny breadcrumbs, perfectly dropped. What was the mystery of Rosemary's sister? Where had her elder brother run away to? What is contained in Rosemary's mother's diaries which she was given and put into her airline luggage which has now been lost (what a clever plot device!)?

Then, at the 25% mark, a major disclosure is made. Still there are mysteries, but now the options are strictly limited; in the end it can only go one of two ways. The book now runs largely on the charm of the wonderful characters of Harlow the drama queen friend, Ezra the caretaker and Lowell, the mysterious but oh so charismatic brother. We find out more about Rosemary's unreliable memories and there is quite a lot of psychological monkey study stuff which got a bit wearing. A bit preachy perhaps.

There are still great lines but they are further apart.

  • "If you told Lowell, this is where we draw the line, you could count on him stopping instantly over it." (p 111)
  • "If you do believe ... that morality starts with God, then you have to wonder why he simultaneously hardwired us against it." (p 151)
  • "The black magic around me, each streetlamp wrapped in its own bubble of mist, my bike-light briefly igniting the puddles on the black streets as I passed." (p 159) What a poetic description of an urban street at night!
  • "Harlow hadn't given me a gateway drug. More of a slammed-door drug. I would never ever take it again." (p 177)
  • "The smoke alarm went off and had to be beaten into silence with a broom handle." (p 177)
  • "I said to myself, self, there's a person you want to know better." (p 193)
  • "You learn as much from failure as from success, Dad always says. Though no one admires you for it." (p 197) 
  • "Can't complain, I said. ... Don't be so modest. I bet you can complain for days." (p 199)
  • "I'm speechless, my mother told me. Which wasn't remotely true." (p 234)
  • "The only reason I'm the one telling this is that I'm the one not currently in a cage." (p 304)
  • "No Utopia is Utopia for everyone." (p 306) This last one can be compared to "Better never means better for everyone ... It always means worse, for some." in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood.


This was a great book. t was great all the way through. Don't think it wasn't just because I seem less enamoured after the first quarter. It was just that that first quarter was spectacular.

March 2017; 308 pages

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