Main character Rosemary has lost so much, and in the course of her narration she revisits episodes from her past, trying to make sense of that loss and reexamining her own role in her family’s tragedy.
When she was five, Rosemary lost her sister and still harbors guilt over events leading to that loss. Soon after, her only other sibling, brother Lowell, left home in grief and anger and never returned. Left alone with her scientist parents, her father drinking and her mother unhinged, raw, and remote, Rosemary grows into a self-conscious, directionless misfit.
When you learn that the sister Rosemary is mourning is a chimpanzee named Fern, brought to live with the family as an experiment in human-chimpanzee communication, you may wonder why Rosemary’s sense of loss is so profound. But Fowler develops these characters- including Fern- so thoroughly, and portrays their relationships in such glimmering lucidity, that by the end there is no denying that Rosemary and Fern bonded as sisters, twins. Rosemary did not lose a test subject, a friend, or a pet; she lost her sister, her other half.
As Lowell’s animal rights crusades garner FBI attention and Rosemary stumbles through college life in a haze of longing, the circumstances of Fern’s removal from the family are slowly revealed. Which leads to the question, so consuming to Rosemary and reader alike: where is Fern? Is she still alive? Communication from Lowell, now a fugitive, leads Rosemary to finally confront her past.
Guilt, family dynamics, ethics, animal rights, humanity and humanness all wind through the story, making it so compelling, so impossible to put down. It is a credit to Fowler that she does not romanticize Fern’s place in the family.