Uncommon upbringings are at the heart of two intriguing new novels – each featuring a girl who is sent away from home for a life-altering reason.
In the extraordinary Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” it is 5-year-old Rosemary “Rosie” Cooke who is whisked off to her grandparents’ in Indianapolis just long enough for her parents to divest themselves of her “twin” sister, Fern.
In debut novelist Anton Disclafani’s “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls,” it is 15-year-old Theodora “Thea” Atwell who is banished from her comfortable Florida home after she precipitates a family tragedy from which there seems no return.
Disclafani’s book is set in the more interesting era – the early months of the Great Depression – while Fowler’s takes place from 1979 to the present. Both harbor secrets, have themes incorporated within their long titles and deal with complex young women who blame themselves for the upheaval in their families. And here I must offer a caution:
To review Fowler’s profound and witty “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is to give away the novel’s unexpected secret (revealed on page 77) – not a great loss in the aggregate but something to consider before you read on.
For protagonist Rosemary’s “twin” sister, Fern – taken away when both are 5 – is not another girl-child but an enchanting chimpanzee whose early companionship with Rosemary will impact all the days of Rosemary’s life.
“I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a chimpanzee,” she tells us. “I had to move halfway across the country in order to leave that fact behind. It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone.”
Rosemary’s father (like Fowler’s) is an animal behaviorist and Rosemary – a student at the University of California, Davis, when we meet her – isn’t sure whether her father’s “twin” experiment was meant to study Fern, or Rosemary.
When she finds a paper he wrote, years before – noting (provocatively) that “humans are much more imitative than other apes” – she recalls childhood admonitions of her mother’s, prior to playing outside or starting school:
“Stay upright … No loping through the snow on my hands and feet … Not putting my fingers into anyone else’s mouth or hair … Not biting anyone, ever … Not jumping on the tables and desks …”
These, of course, are externals, preparation for Fowler’s deeper probing into the science world’s animal-human experiments, particularly of the 1970s, and what became of those chimps, cherished, then cast away.
That the ever-remarkable Fowler (she is also the author of the much-heralded “The Jane Austen Book Club”) uses the novel form to consider some of her own deep-seated interests pays off in spades (and jeu d’esprit) here – and we are the benefactors.
For “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” gives us not only Rosemary and Fern but a family that also fascinates as Fern’s absence kills its focus, nearly destroys Rosemary’s mother, reduces her father’s work to a footnote – and sees her beloved brother Lowell abscond, before finishing high school, his quest initially to find Fern, later to work with an “Animal Liberation Front,” which earns him “domestic terrorist” status in the eyes of the FBI.
“There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened,” Rosemary muses years later, after a reluctant visit to her parents.
For decades, any disturbance will tend to bring out the “monkey girl” in Rosemary – “monkey” a misnomer thrust upon her by cruel childhood classmates. For decades, any mention of chimpanzees will unbalance Rosemary, triggering memories and launching endless internal debates about what chimps can “know,” remember, feel and process (Rosemary, ever on the side of the apes, concluding that it is the humans not the apes who bear watching).
She recalls her father being “far less likely to anthropomorphize Fern than to animalize me,” and spends a goodly portion of some days fretting over the treatment of all captive animals, particularly those selected for research.
It will take another young woman – like Fern, without boundaries – to pull Rosemary from this mire of loss and contemplation while we, the lucky onlookers, cheer her all the way.
“We are all completely beside ourselves” is, by the way, “the strangely illuminating phrase” Rosemary’s mother favors here. It is also an illuminating title for a rollicking, intelligent book with both scope and value (which may become a cult classic and which, when in paperback, I intend to buy in bulk, for favored friends).
First-time novelist Disclafani chooses an unusual subject as well in “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls,” an old-fashioned story of a headstrong girl, an equestrian named Thea who is – to put it simply – fearless, and will one day say: “It was a trait that served me well in the ring, and badly in life.”
She is also a girl with “a terrible secret,” sent to Yonahlossee, “an enclave for wealthy young women,” partly for her protection but chiefly as a punishment. The frisson here is between Thea’s circumstances and the uncertain times, the beginning months of the Great Depression, a fact that will see some of Thea’s sister-campers sent home due to drastic downturns in family fortunes.
“How can we help?” one girl asks Henry Holmes, the camp’s headmaster. “A good question,” he says, “and one best answered by your fathers. To put it bluntly, money begets money … Encourage your fathers to invest, to spend, to trust the banks.”
Thea, at first, does not understand the “merry laughter” that follows Mr. Holmes’ remarks. But then the truth dawns: “There was nothing we could do to help. We were but daughters. The idea that we would offer our fathers financial counsel was, indeed, laughable.”
Thea’s own father is a physician, the family money coming from citrus crops on her mother’s side – a steady commodity for the most part that Thea had always assumed she and her twin brother, Sam, would inherit (despite the fact that Thea’s mother once told Sam that Thea, as a girl, “doesn’t matter like you do”).
History, money, class, expectations, decorum and more fill the pages of Disclafani’s tale of Thea, nicely told in the first person but somehow stuck at Thea’s “terrible secret” – which is not revealed till rather far on in the book and, by then, seems anti-climatic.
This is especially so given the fact that Thea continues, at Yonahlossee, to follow a path toward personal destruction that, although not completely her own doing, buys her no sympathy.
Young equestrians, however, may well like “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls” for its fine horse-riding and racing depictions, and its attention to the elegant horses housed in Yonahlossee’s stables.
This reader can only remember Thea as a privileged and troubled girl who knows better and even says, “In the back of my mind, the nasty thought always lingered that I would be happier if I did not want so much.”
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
By Karen Joy Fowler
A Marian Wood Book/Putman
310 pages, $26.95
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls
By Anton Disclafani
388 pages, $27.95
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.