Karen Joy Fowler's funny and heartbreaking novel "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" is the story of Rosemary, a woman trying to make sense of the traumatic separation of her and her sister Fern in childhood.
Uh, did we mention that Fern was a chimpanzee?
In fact, Fowler herself doesn't mention that salient fact until about a third of the way through the novel. As a result, when the novel was first released in May, the plot twist became a kind of secret "reveal," that has stymied anyone who has attempted to talk about the story.
"I wrote the book the way I wanted to write it," said Fowler, author of the best-selling "The Jane Austen Book Club" and a Santa Cruz resident. "And I wanted the reader to be surprised. But I hadn't really stopped to think about what a difficulty I was creating for the marketing department at my publishing house, and for reviewers, as well as the difficulty I was creating for myself."
In the age of the hyper-vigilant "spoiler alert," Fowler, who appears tonight at the Capitola Book Caf? found she was having problems talking about her book at book signings.
"When I began to do events, every time I would think, well, it's time to stop pretending this is a secret, I would read another review that said, 'Don't let anyone spoil the book for you by giving away the secret.'"
The novel was inspired by a real-life developmental experiment in the 1930s of a married couple of scientists rearing a chimp alongside their own infant son. The experiment ended after nine months when the human child began to mimic the chimp's behavior.
"We Are All" tells a fictional story of the aftermath of a similar experiment that lasted years instead of months. The book is meant, said Fowler, as a kind of meditation on the emotional and spiritual bonds that can occur between creatures of different species. Waiting until well into the story to reveal Fern's true identity underscores the cross-species empathy that is at the heart of the novel.
"I wanted the reader to think of Fern as her sister first, just as you would think of any other sibling. And I felt that if you met her first as a chimpanzee then I could never make that point as clearly."
As part of her research for the book, Fowler visited the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in Ellensburg, Wash., where she met a trio of chimps and learned the basics of chimp/human communications. During the research phase of her book, she said, she also learned of several advances in research on animal cognition that also informed her novel.
Fowler grew up as the daughter of an animal scientist. "My father worked with rats, never chimps or monkeys. But he was always clear at the dinner table conversation that we were animals as well. So I grew up being told that I was an animal among other animals."
The theme of "We Are All" is consistent with Fowler's interest in weaving in scientific themes in contemporary fiction. In fact, she has often been tabbed a science-fiction or fantasy writer, and she's won awards in both genres. But neither fit comfortably in a writer who wants to escape being bound to one genre or another.