The book start with a prologue that throws out tantalizing bits of information, as it should, that only acquire their full significance as one advances in the book.
Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child.
When you think of two things to say, pick your favorite and only say that, my mother suggested once, as a tip to polite social behavior, and the rule was later modified to one in three. My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop midway.
Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.
Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.
So the story starts in the middle, the narrator a college student at UC Davis. And this reader wondered: Why did she used to be a great talker? Why is she not now? What happened between the beginning and the middle to make her so? One has to be patient and wait… And what do these comments about the mother and father really reveal about them, and about family dynamics? And who else is in that family where one member changes so much?
The beginning of the first chapter throws a tiny ray of light on that last question.
So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996. By then, we’d long since dwindled to the family that old home movie foreshadowed — me, my mother, and unseen but evident behind the camera, my father. In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.
There are missing family members. Why and how have they disappeared? The narrator says she hardly ever thinks of them in 1996, but how have these disappearances affected her? And what does she really remember about them? She was 5 years old when her sister disappeared and yet she harbors strong feelings of guilt about that disappearance. She was 11 years old when her brother disappeared and she feels she could have prevented it. Are her memories reliable?
A surprise comes when we find out who the sister was, how she joined the family, and how she left. And we then understand how deeply this early childhood experience affected the narrator, as well as the rest of the family, even though their memories of it differ.
Fowler, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2013.