Rosemary Cooke grew up in a farmhouse with her brother, sister, parents, and a whole team of graduate students. But when she was five years old, everything changed. She went away to her grandparents and came back to a different home. The house was smaller and not full of grad students. Her older brother, Lowell, was largely absent. And there was no trace of her sister, Fern. In fact, as far as Rosemary can recall, no one in the family spoke much about Fern after that. She was living on a farm, Rosemary was told, and that was that.
Of course, that’s not the whole story, and this novel by Karen Joy Fowler delves into how the stories we tell ourselves and each other are almost always incomplete. As we play our memories over and over in our heads, we shape them, and the story that embeds itself in our brain may be missing key information.
For the first third or so of the book, Fowler shows how this works by having Rosemary leave a key piece of information out of the first 75 pages of her narrative. As far as the readers know, Fern is an ordinary human sister, raised alongside Rosemary from their shared infancy. But Fern is a chimp. Rosemary understands that she needs to withhold that fact to help readers see what the relationship felt like from her point of view.
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.
Rosemary and Fern grew up together, being read to by the same mother, playing in the same yard, taking the same tests. They were different, sure, but what siblings aren’t? And Lowell, age 11 when Fern disappeared from the family, felt the same way. So when Fern is gone, the family is shattered. Lowell resents those he deems responsible, and his resentment only grows when he learns he’s been lied to about Fern’s fate. Rosemary feels only confusion, and no one will talk to her about it.
Most of the book is set in the 1990s, 20 years after Fern left the Cooke family. By now, Rosemary’s memories have become hazy. She still grieves Fern as a lost sister, but she knows how unusual her childhood was and has learned not to tell anyone about it. Lowell is on the run from the FBI because he directed his anger toward labs that conducted experiments on animals. Rosemary longs to see both of her siblings again, even if she doesn’t understand why they left.
Over the course of the book, Fowler carefully reveals additional versions of what happened to Fern. When Lowell tells Rosemary what he remembers, her memory expands, and the story gets clearer and more complex. When, finally, she talks to her parents, another story comes out. This story is probably the closest to the complete truth, but there are gaps. The Cooke parents had their reasons for not talking to Rosemary about Fern, but I wonder how much their reasons were shaped by what they wanted to avoid.
And then there’s Fern’s perspective. What does she understand? Getting at the whole truth may be impossible. There’s subjectivity born of lack of information and lack of capacity to understand. But it’s hard to say any single version of the story is totally untrue.
This is a heart-breaking book. I would have found it so even if I weren’t prone to get emotional over animal stories. But it’s also an interesting book in its construction. I was really impressed with how Fowler built the story, always filtered through Rosemary’s perspective, which shifts with each new piece of information she receives.
There were some elements that seemed extraneous and that didn’t interest me much. There’s a whole subplot about a ventriloquist’s dummy and a woman who decides to make Rosemary her friend. And I wish there’d been more of a payoff for the thread involving Rosemary’s mother’s journals. Maybe the journals would have put the narrative off balance, taking the focus away from Rosemary’s perspective. The main plot, however, was riveting. The side plots bothered me mostly because they took me away from that story.