Her new novel, for instance, involves an ordinary Midwestern family: two parents and three children.
The younger daughter is a chimpanzee.
And why not? If Gregor Samsa can turn into a cockroach and Edward Albee can ask, “Who is Sylvia?”, a chimp for a sibling doesn’t seem so far down the evolutionary tree. In fact, just as most of us have decided that we should probably stop torturing chimps to death in the name of science, an outrageous community of simian novels has been congregating in the branches of the library, from the “autobiography” of Tarzan’s sidekick, “Me Cheeta,” by James Lever, to “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,” by Benjamin Hale.
But there’s nothing fantastical about Fowler’s new novel with its drawing-room title, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” In fact, the plot is inspired by several real experiments, including the work of Winthrop and Luella Kellogg, scientists at Indiana University who raised their baby son alongside a chimp for almost a year in the early 1930s.
Fowler places her story in the 1970s and extends the experiment to five years. Dr. and Mrs. Cooke live in a farmhouse with a gaggle of graduate students in Bloomington, Ind. They have a son named Lowell and two new daughters, Rosemary and Fern. Rosemary never stops talking; Fern never starts. But their parents have “promised to love them both exactly the same.” So far, so normal.
In a witty, conversational voice, Rosemary reluctantly parcels out the details of her “chimped-up household.” She doesn’t mention her sister’s body hair issue until page 77. “I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact,” she says. “It’s never going to be the first thing I share. . . . In my defense, I had my reasons,” she adds. “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.” She’s right, of course. Fern’s identity is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The mechanics of this weird family arrangement are irresistible: How did the Cookes care for these two toddlers, feed them, dress them, keep them from hurting each other? “What was the goal of the Fern/Rosemary Rosemary/Fern study before it came to its premature and calamitous end?”
As an adult looking back on her famous childhood, Rosemary is curious about those questions, too. But the answers are elusive because once Fern left the family, no one mentioned her again, and it’s not at all clear what precipitated her departure. All Rosemary can do now — many years later — is try to excavate memories of their time together and catch lingering impressions of her sister still persisting in her own personality.