Karen Joy Fowler’s new book actually came out in May, but this is definitely a case of better late than never. The premise of the book is terrific, but it is the voice that makes it extraordinary.
Rosemary, lively, wisecracking, too smart for her own good, is our narrator. She starts in the middle — during her college years — then goes back to her childhood and fills in the gaps. I found it engaging and wonderfully unpredictable, partly because Rosemary is an unreliable narrator. And she knows it! She’s not even sure what really happened and what didn’t. There is a great deal of suspense around what became of Fern, and just what caused her to be sent away from the family. There is also suspense involving Rosemary’s brother and what became of him after he ran away. Throw that together with Rosemary’s wild college friend, Harlow, who inbues the story with a dose of chaos and humor, and you have quite an entertainment.
The author spoke about the book on the Diane Rehm Show (NPR). Our reviewer, Paula Gallagher, called in to ask if she thought her book might appeal to teens. Fowler replied, “I would like to think so. I would hope so. I think if I were doing a reading aloud and there were younger people in the audience, there would be sections I would not read. But, you know, the question of sort of what kinds of books I write and who the audience for them is is not something that I think about while I’m writing it. And is usually something that somebody else needs to tell me later.”
This novel will satisfy young readers interested in psychology and family dynamics, as well as those concerned with animal rights and animal experimentation issues. Some teens may recognize its themes — they were treated by Kenneth Oppel in Half Brother (2010).
Adult/High School–After three weeks spent in Indianapolis with grandparents who do nothing but watch TV and serve her repellent scrambled eggs, five-year-old Rosemary has had enough. What horrible thing has she done to deserve this exile? But when her psychologist father takes her home, it’s not their sprawling farmhouse with trees outside the bedroom windows and a barn out back. The family moved while she was away, and her sister, Fern, was given away. This suspenseful coming-of-age novel begins in the middle. Rosemary is now a 22-year-old college student, deeply affected by the events of the past. Smart, introverted, and socially awkward, she has difficulty connecting with her peers. Her beloved older brother blames her for Fern’s disappearance; he, too, “disappeared” 10 years ago. A boisterous new friend, Harlow, insinuates her way into Rosemary’s life, providing her with the companionship she’s been craving. Gradually, readers learn her secret: she was raised alongside a chimpanzee whom she knew as her sister. While Fern picked up many of Rosemary’s mannerisms, their relationship was a two-way street that earned Rosemary the nickname “monkey girl” at school. Based on actual experiments conducted in the 1970s, this novel provides a fascinating, unique window into behavioral psychology and the ethics of animal experimentation. Teens will be instantly drawn to this sympathetic, witty heroine struggling under the weight of years of guilt. Is she to blame for her irrevocably fractured family?–Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD