The GIST: Rosemary is a fifth-year student at UC Davis, undeniably bright but spinning her wheels without direction or confidence. She is a fractured person from a fractured family. Their demise wasn’t caused by divorce or a death, but a mysterious loss. Rosie’s closest companion, an adopted sister, vanished from the family scene when they were both five years old, never to be seen again. Raised together from infancy, Rosie and Fern were like twins. The loss of Fern left her parents and Rosie’s older brother, Lowell, bereft and reeling. Rosie’s suffering is based in shame, as she blamed herself for Fern’s fate, and moved through the rest of her life as if she were missing half of herself. Without giving away too much of a spoiler here, Rosie’s parents were behavioral psychologists. Her family was one of several home labs conducting an experiment without any foresight into its hazardous consequences. The story goes back and forth in time, unraveling family relationships, the deficiencies of science, and the redemptive value of honest communication.
The WRITING: Poignant and funny. Rosie is an errant narrator who doesn’t have all the facts. Her destructive assumptions are based on hazy childhood memories and perceptions. The reader has inklings about what might have gone wrong for Rosie and her family, but Fowler gradually fills in the facts with perfect suspense. She begins this tale in the middle, which supports her premise that without a careful look at our beginnings, resolution and clarity are impossible. Rosie is an endearing character with feelings of disparity that isolate her from others.This might be the result of having been part of a psychology experiment in early childhood, but Fowler explores Rosie’s deeper emotional challenges. Her despair at the loss of Fern has never been discussed or addressed in her family, so it has morphed into an unsustainable burden. Fowler uses a particular branch of cognitive study, and its unfettered and perhaps unethical proliferation in the seventies, to survey the development of the human ego. As she reveals the truth about what happened to Fern, we see that it’s not Rosie’s losses that have injured her most over time, but a failure to bring them out into the light and examine them with others who were also grieving. Bearing grief hand in hand is easier, and curative. Healing is possible.
BUY or BORROW? Buy. I’ll read this one again – it’s filled with shrewd observations about human nature that I wanted to ponder but was too eager to find out what really happened to Fern! She’s one of many engaging characters.
“The happening and telling are very different things. This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it. Language does this to our memories, simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album. Eventually it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”