Review: We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

There is no doubt in my mind that Joyce Carol Oates is a wonderfully gifted writer. I don’t believe, however, that her writing style is for everyone. We Were the Mulvaneys, however evident of Oates’s talent as a novelist, is a tedious, overdescriptive work that requires a lot of patience and perseverance to get through. At almost 500 pages — with what free time and stolen trice I could possibly sneak in spent on reading books that are more affective than usual — I read this in a full week, amid the lethargy of working on a Criminology coursework with all its reading and writing demands.

We Were the Mulvaneys is the story of the Mulvaney family in the 60s to mid-1970s. They are the more-than-typical family, like the ones on TV who play games together in the living room after dinner. A little on the unsophisticated and hackneyed side, but the love they share for each other is evident in the beginning chapters. Then something happens to one of the family members — a tragedy atrocious and unforgettable — that threatens to tear the Mulvaneys apart.

While the story itself was interesting enough on the plot level, I could not effortlessly get into the book (unlike I do with most of Oates’s short stories). I was hoping maybe it would be a late-bloomer, but there was never a point that I reached that inspired me to keep reading. I did finish the novel, but only after a week of exhausting myself.

This novel is a painful but sympathetic account of the tragedy-struck Mulvaney family who led idyllic lives for nearly two decades in the 1960s and 70s, while living in a well-maintained, century-old farmhouse on twenty acres, near the small town of Mt. Ephraim in upper state New York. It is a sprawling novel detailing the rise and fall of a family who live out on a farm in a small town suburb, in a community at once small enough to be cozy and claustrophobic at the same time. The Mulvaneys, Mike Sr. and Corrine and their four children, from oldest to youngest, Mike Jr, Patrick, Marianne, and Judd, was suffused with a great deal of harmony, love, cheerfulness, dependability, youthful zest. They were well respected in the community, even among the movers and shakers, for their industriousness: Mike Sr. owning a roofing company and Corrine running the household and dabbling in antiques. Despite all of these qualities there was a certain lack of depth in their lives. There were elements of naïveté, insularity, simplicity, and religiosity about them that left them utterly unprepared to cope with an ugly, painful event visited upon their family when most of the kids were youngsters.

This novel speaks volumes about how families fall apart and are mended again. The book, at points, can be engrossing; the story spins out then out of control to a point of terrible sorrow; then it is spun into something more resilient than it was before. It takes one twist in a young woman’s life to push the family to its knees. Her misstep resonated within her family to the point of destruction. The book is consumed almost entirely with the fallout from a sexual assault suffered by Marianne, as a junior in high school, after the Valentine’s Day prom in 1976, hinted at constantly in the first third of the book where the smoothly functioning, happy family stands in stark contrast with what is coming. Unfortunately, the community’s reaction is one of covert condemnation — blame the victim and, most of all, stop associating with the family. As for the Mulvaney’s, as might be expected, Marianne is totally distraught by what has occurred. On the other hand, Mike Sr., instead of providing the stability that his family needed, embarks on a path of destruction: he neglects his business; invests much time in seeking some sort of revenge; drinks excessively; and creates a constant level of hostility within the family, which is hardly helped when he drives away Marianne. Within a couple of years the entire family has broken up and the farm and business are lost.

What ensues over the next fifteen years and the last two-thirds of the book is sad but not unexpected. Patrick and Marianne are the biggest casualties; without the safe and supportive environment they had known their entire lives they flounder in their endeavors, be it school or menial jobs. Corrine regards their lives as “stitched like a rag quilt.” Mike continues to deteriorate, isolating himself from everyone. Corrine, in her forgetfulness, remains the delusional optimist in the face of every setback. Marianne is the author’s focus, whose mysteriousness intrigues many in her scattered life, but always moves on when anyone draws near. Some of the story is told from the perspective of Judd in 1993, who looks back on the Mulvaneys from his vantage point as a newspaperman.

The book can be extremely tedious at times, especially in the beginning, with a great deal of excessive descriptions, but eventually the characters take over the book. Perhaps I was drawn in by the obvious need for appropriate counseling that is never achieved. The last short segment of the book is the odd piece. A family reunion is held by Corrine in 1993 not far from the old family home, where the Mulvaneys arrive well-adjusted with their spouses and children in tow, as though the previous horrible years had not occurred. More likely is that the author is letting us know that there was an inner strength and resolve in the Mulvaneys, perhaps not expected, that eventually rose in each of them in the face of adversity.

The story is told from the point of view of the youngest son, Judd. He is bewildered by the power of accusation and to some extent, sex. He is horrified by his father, misses his sister and ignored by his brothers. Only his mother stays by his side; but their relationship is complicated. He’s the heart of the family so he has to watch his family falls apart. In a sense, he suffers the most, if only because his age forces him to live with parents who are no longer in love; and the rest of the family stays away as much as possible. He goes from the youngest to the only child of the Mulvaneys. As the sadness nearly overwhelms the reader, the story turns again when the mother — a stronger character than portrayed earlier — pulls the family back together. But she is only able to do so after her husband dies. Any move before his death would force her to acknowledge her husband as the linchpin of most of the misery that befalls the family. He drove his beloved daughter away because the rape changed her in his eyes. Then, he loses his business, farm and the rest of the family by drinking too much. Once he is gone, she is able to mend the Mulvaneys to a point beyond their childhoods.

I was held in thrall for most of this story but found the ending deeply unsatisfying and implausible. Innocent, lovely Marianne is twice a victim: once at the hands of her brutal attacker and again more devastatingly by her own parents, who send her into virtual exile following “the incident” of which no one in the family dares speak. After a period of twelve years Marianne is inexplicably welcomed back into the family fold; the reader is expected to accept not only this, but more unimaginably — that she would still want anything to do with these heartless, self-absorbed people. There is never any real attempt to explain the stunningly cruel behavior of Marianne’s parents; instead Oates writes: “In families, things just happen.” It’s almost as though the author lost interest and decided to wrap up a complex and riveting story with a few quick “feel good” chapters at the end and a ridiculous family reunion in which everything turns out hunky-dory.

At times Oates displays an almost preternatural insight into the human psyche, particularly with her characterization of Patrick, Marianne’s brilliant, rage-filled brother. Unfortunately, this serves to leave the reader all the more frustrated with the unlikely conclusion.


3 thoughts on “Review: We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Pingback: J.C. Oates’ “We Were the Mulvaneys” And Some Thoughts on Breakfast | Discursus

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