Karen Joy Fowler's novel is built in such a way as to make it peculiarly difficult to write about. Anyone who has read it might forgive me for simply reporting that it is an intricate and humane story about families, and the damage that good intentions can do, and leaving it at that.
The family at its centre is that of the Cookes, Mom and Dad and their three children – in order of age: Lowell, Fern and Rosie. They grow up in 1970s Indiana, where Dad Vince is a psychology professor – of the type that "didn't leave their work at the office. They brought it home. They conducted experiments around the breakfast table, made freak shows of their own families, and all to answer questions nice people wouldn't even think to ask."
We do learn, in time, exactly what experiments the parents perpetrated on their children, but only through the retrospective filter of regret, guilt and accusation: 20 years on, Rosie is the only one of the three children in contact with the grown-ups, and it's she who tells the story.
In 1996 she is going through a bad patch at college when Lowell suddenly turns up on her doorstep, with news of the long-disappeared Fern. Things are further complicated by the interventions of Rosie's unlikely friend, Harlow, who is the sort of anarchic devil-may-care "psycho bitch" who would hog the limelight in almost any novel but this.
Here, despite the wilful destruction, and the drugs, and the stolen ventriloquist's dummy, she is outshone by the Cookes themselves. "You know how everything seems so normal when you're growing up," Rosie remembers her freshman roommate saying, on their first day of college, "and then comes this moment when you realize your whole family is nuts?" – little does she know!
All this complication, though, which takes in jail, helicoptered-in civil rights lawyers and gung-ho janitors, does lessen the impact of the novel. It's true that Rosie is a terribly conflicted narrator, and by the end of the book we understand her reasons for making such a convoluted hash of what is at heart a simple story, but that doesn't stop the annoyance she generates along the way.
It's Fowler, not Rosie, that chose the structure of the book, and she might just as easily have taken a dozen more straightforward routes that would have made the same heartfelt points about human nature and the duties we have to each other – and the impossibility of ever achieving this, thanks to what Rosie memorably calls "the clown car between our ears".