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Some very talented authors manage to write books that are simultaneously beautiful literary artwork and a joy to read. Much as I enjoy the occasional brainless escape, and as much as I learn from the occasional plunge into literary depth, it seems my favorite books are those that manage to straddle the divide between the two.  

If a book is poorly written, it’s hard to sink into, no matter how engaging the plot. If a book is so highbrow that reading it is a joyless act of drudgery (looking at you, The Scarlet Letter), well, call me unsophisticated, but ain’t nobody got time for that. Karen Joy Fowler’s latest offering is that rarest of birds that is physically stunning and flies like a dream.

 

I couldn’t decide whether or not to include the following potential spoiler, but this detail makes the book infinitely more interesting than just a typical family drama, so I’ve decided to go ahead and spill the beans a little here. The story centers around the dynamics of a family—narrator Rosemary, mother, father, older brother Lowell, and sister Fern. Oh, except Fern is a chimpanzee. And she and Rosemary were raised as twins until Fern was suddenly and without explanation taken away. Right?!?! And the best part is, the book lives up to the hype created by such a wacky premise. (Rosemary admits to Fern’s species less than a hundred pages in, and I don’t think early knowledge ruins the first part of the book. Sorry if you disagree! I’m a blabbermouth! Stick to the tags and ignore what I have to say!)

The narrator, Rosemary Cooke, tells her life story in bits and pieces, skipping ahead and backing up again, eventually revealing grief and guilt from the past as well as tentative hope and reconciliation. I’m a big fan of unreliable narrators—I love all the layers they add and questions they provoke—and Rosemary’s candor is definitely suspect. For example, once, about halfway through her account of a wild night out, after an incident involving, of all things, a ventriloquist’s dummy, she casually mentions that she had taken some pills offered by a friend. I guess she knew if she led with the fact that she was tripping balls, people might cast a dubious eye on the rest of her story.

Ultimately, this book is a great study of character and family, but is saved from cliché and sappiness and Nicholas Sparksiness. You know, on account of the sister being a chimp and all.