Literary prescriptions for living a lie: The Novel Cure


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The Independent Culture

AILMENT: Temptation to consider your children as an experiment

CURE: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Unorthodox upbringings are sometimes unavoidable. But some parents choose to subject their children to unusual circumstances in the name of scientific or anthropological research with little thought for how this might affect their chances of happiness later on. If you ever find yourself curious to see what happens if you feed your children nothing but spinach for a year, or leave them in the care of a robot nanny 24/7, this novel will soon put you off.

To reveal the precise nature of the scientific experiment undertaken by Rosemary's parents – specifically, her father, a behavioural psychology professor at Indiana university – would be to give away one of the most fabulous plot twists since Magwitch was revealed as Pip's benefactor. Let's just say that one of the members of the family of five has some unorthodox characteristics. For years the family seem as happy as any. They live on a farm, and friendly PhD students act as an extended circle of aunts and uncles. But not long after Rosemary turns five, something terrible happens.

For years Rosemary buries her memory of the part she played in the events that led, in turn, to her mother's breakdown, the disappearance of her sister Fern and, ultimately, of her older brother Lowell. But when Lowell turns up at her college dorm one day, a full picture of what happened emerges, and we understand why she struggles so much to make friends with anyone but a crazy, plate-smashing drama student named Harlow.

Deep down Rosemary knows it's not her fault. "What kind of a family lets a five-year-old child decide such things?" she says, of the events leading to her siblings' disappearances. As this perceptive, poignant novel will show you, being a parent is not an opportunity to test your latest hypotheses on your vulnerable progeny.