The synopsis of this book doesn’t really say much. It’s about a dysfunctional family. Pretty typical, no? This book is anything but typical, and the only way for me to review it is to go through my mental process while reading it, step by step. Major spoilers to follow.
The book sets up immediately as a quick, easy read. Right away, we hear that Rosemary, our narrator, is starting her story “in the middle,” in 1996, when she hasn’t seen her brother in ten years, or her sister in seventeen years. Right away, I assumed this was part of the dysfunctional family thing, and that both her siblings were much older than her, and maybe ran away as teenagers. I knew Rosie’s mother had some breakdowns, and her father was a behavioral psychologist who wasn’t in any way empathetic. They didn’t seem super bad or anything, but I was waiting to hear what they had been like before their other two children ran away.
The book shifts backwards in time, to when Rosie is five and her sister has disappeared. Throughout this section, I started to realize that Fern (the sister) wasn’t a whole lot older. In fact, she seemed to be very near Rose in age, perhaps even a twin. I got the impression that something bad had happened, but not that she had died. I wondered if, perhaps, she had Down Syndrome or some other issue that convinced her parents to put her in an institution, or to let her become a ward of the state.
Then, however, came the twist: Fern was a chimpanzee, raised nearly from birth alongside Rosemary.
The narrator tells us that perhaps we have already guessed. Maybe if I’d been reading the little section headers from a Kafka story told from an ape’s point of view, I would have, but I have a tendency to skip those sorts of things. I didn’t have a clue. I hadn’t really noticed the monkey on the cover art, either. This came completely out of the blue to me, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Rose tells us that she didn’t say this right away because, “I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already, you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. You’re thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet.” And that’s exactly right, because I can’t even begin to imagine thinking of a chimpanzee as a sibling. It is so far beyond my comprehension, that it nearly fell out of my possible suspension of disbelief. But I kept reading.
I’d enjoyed the book, up until the twist. After that, the book was temporarily knocked into a place of mediocrity. I doubted it could recover, that I could ever really feel that these characters actually thought of Fern as a sister, much less think of her that way myself. I’m not really an animal person, and never have been. Karen Joy Fowler deserves some credit, though, because not long after this, she actually did make me believe that the one character, at least, saw Fern as his sister – Rose’s brother, Lowell. In his last year of high school, Lowell discovered that Fern was not at a nature preserve farm, but in a cage in South Dakota, forced to integrate into chimp society against her upbringing. His girlfriend was with him when he found out, and she didn’t understand. He screamed at her, “Don’t effing talk to me about responsibility. … That’s my sister in that cage.” And just like that, I could see things a bit better.
That’s not to say I could ever really understand, myself, the relationship Fern had with the various members of the family. The situation was so alien to me, that I felt there was a wall between me and the book. But that one line helped me to understand better, understand enough, that I ended up liking the book in the end. Sure, it got a little overexuberant at times, a little stuffy and preachy, but it was a good book. Like nothing I’ve ever read before.