Unforgettable

We are all completely beside ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler

Until she was five, Rosemary Cooke had a sister. Fern, her almost-twin. The two girls were inseparable: they jumped and sang and cuddled and competed for attention. They were joined at the heart with a love that was bigger than even they knew at the time. And then, without even a good-bye, Fern was gone. No one in the family talked about her disappearance–Rose ached; her mother crumpled; older brother Lowell lashed out.

But this isn’t a crime novel. Fern wasn’t kidnapped or murdered. She was sent away to the research lab of a Dr. Uljevik in South Dakota. You see, Fern was a chimpanzee. The girls’ father, a psychology professor, wanted to study learning theory and intelligence by raising a chimp child alongside a human child. And so when Rose was one-month-old, three-month-old Fern became her sister. And for a time it worked. Grad students ran test after test on both girls; Dad published scholarly papers and prospered. The girls were featured in a New York Times story. Mom kept detailed journals–baby books for both human and chimp. There was love.

Twenty years later Rose’s memories of Fern were still as clear as if they happened yesterday: corn-on-the-cob kernels stuck in her stubby little teeth, the hairs on her chin, her strawberry smell after a bubble bath. And how, while playing a game of Same/Not Same with the grad students, Fern always gave Rose a red poker chip … for same.  Rose misses her sister with a longing that all but pulses on the page. And Rose also misses the family they were with Fern. Lowel, now a member of the Animal Liberation Front, is wanted by the FBI for fire-bombing a research laboratory. (Some readers will cringe when Lowell relates some of the horrors he encountered in research labs, but Fowler approached the atrocities guardedly.)  Dad frequently loses himself in alcohol, and Mom (who had loved Fern best, Rose thinks) has fended off her depression in a bustle of bridge games and tennis.  The novel is the story of Rose trying to make sense of her loss and find her way back to her sister and brother. What did she remember and what really happened to provoke Fern’s leaving?

I read so much mid-list fiction, that sometimes plots and characters run together. But author Karen Joy Fowler created a story so original, I’m still peeling off layer upon layer. Is it a story about family love? About our love for non-human animals? Is it a treatise for living vegan? Or maybe how our memories are such fragile, imperfect glimpses into our past? An undercurrent of pathos ran through nearly every scene and so while my heart was heavy, I raced through the pages as if it was a thriller. I can honestly say I will remember Fern and Rose for quite some time.

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