If you’ve seen any reviews of this book, you already know that it is a novel about a woman who spent the first five years of her life with a sister, Fern, who happened to be a chimp. When I started reading the novel, I was sort of irritated that reviewers have put this plot point out there and spoiled some of the fun of reading, but now that I’ve finished, the fact that Fern is a chimp is not really the big point. The novel’s focus is more about family, communication, intelligence, memory, psychology and human treatment of animals. That Fern is a chimp is not the most important thing about her.
Our narrator Rosemary (for remembrance) starts in in the middle of things, which from her point of view is when she has been in college at UC Davis in 1996, her brother having run away from the family over a decade ago and her sister missing for even longer. Rosemary has left her parents (and, she hopes, her past) behind in Bloomington, Indiana, but much of her recollections have to do with her father, who as a psychology professor at IU did research world-famous involving Fern and Rosemary. Rosemary feels great guilt and responsibility for what happened to Fern and her brother, although she herself is not clear on the details of their disappearances. It’s only through recollections, chance meetings and conversations that the “facts,” such as they are, begin to emerge.
Rosemary is intelligent, sometimes funny, occasionally emotionally raw as our narrator, and she questions her own reliability in telling this story. She is aware that memory is a tricky thing, given the amount of psychology she has been exposed to growing up. Rosemary is self-reflective, noting that as a child she was terribly, annoyingly loquacious but as an adult she has learned to suppress certain aspects of her personality, her “monkey-girl” nature for which she was teased and bullied in school. When the story begins, she is concerned that a chance encounter with a bohemian student named Harlow will cause her to revert to her uninhibited ways and bring unwanted attention to her family history. “In the comments section of my kindergarten report card I’d been described as impulsive, possessive and demanding. These are classic chimp traits and I’ve worked hard over the years to eradicate them. I felt that Harlow was maybe demonstrating the same tendencies without the same commitment to reform.” While she knows Harlow is bad news, she feels a kinship with her that has been missing since her siblings disappeared.
Communication is an important theme throughout this novel. Rosemary tells us that her father, in doing his research with her and Fern, said he wanted to see if Fern could learn to speak. Rosemary is suspicious and posits that what her father really wanted was to see if Rosemary could learn to speak chimpanzee. Rosemary and Fern were very close and, according to Rosemary, could understand each other as well as any two sisters. And like siblings, they experienced the gamut of feelings for each other from love to resentment and jealousy. Yet the communication among the other members of Rosemary’s family seems incredibly poor despite their verbal abilities. At one point Rosemary says, “Language is such an imprecise vehicle, I sometimes wonder why we bother with it.”
By the end of the novel, Rosemary has learned the truth about her family and herself. There are some sad and unexpected turns, but overall the plot hangs together well. I was very drawn in to the story and was convinced that Fern was a genuine member of this family and that her loss was as hard as the loss of any child could be. Fowler gives her reader a lot to think about and discuss in a reading group.