on June 11, 2004
In the very fist line of Joyce Carol Oates's "We were the Mulvaneys" a statement and a question are made. What is stated is something that will be dealt with throughout the whole novel, but the question cannot be answered right away. However the answer will be a huge 'yes' once you have finished the novel.
The first line of the novel reads "We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?" By beginning with such device, Oates, skilled as she is, immediately immerses he reader in the in that family's universe. The voice of her narrator is so powerful, that from the beginning one may be afraid of saying no. This narrator is the youngest Mulvaney, Judd, who sees his family falling apart after the so-called rape of his sister. However young he is, he has such a sense of persuasion that we almost take for granted what he says.
However, as the plot unfolds, one notices that he is still a child and is trying to cope with the destruction of the institution in which he trusted, which is his family. As lost as he is, he seeks for help from every member, but everyone is so immersed in his/her own problems that the boy finds no comfort.
In her faulkneresk novel, Oates shows the importance of the ties that bound us together with our parents and siblings. Her plots resonates one of the best novels written in English, "The Sound and the Fury", and, although she may have been inspired by Faulkner, she still has her own talent and approach. And these qualities are what make this novel so strong and unique.
There is no doubt that Oates is one of the best writers of her generation. She has a special eye for society --and what backs it up, i.e. family-- that is changing. And with "We were the Mulvaneys" she discusses pertinent subjects. Society is changing because of families --or the other way round? This is not an easy question to answer, and the novel doesn't try to. What Oates does with her powerful writing is to point out that things are changing and we can only accept it --or not.
on January 24, 2003
Think you have the perfect American family? Honestly, how strong is it and where does it unravel? Joyce Carol Oates answers that question in this riveting book about the impact of a violent crime on what was thought to be the perfect family.
First off, I should explain that this isn't a light read that will put a smile on your face. While the ending provides a little ray of positive hope, you are dealing with a story that spends a lot of time on how people hurt each other. The physical victim of crime is only the first person to feel pain. The impacts can then cascade to others and as a reader of this book, you will feel some of that pain.
Recently there have been a few other books that have explored this topic in different ways. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is one example and Donna Tartt's new book, The Little Friend reminds me of this book too.
What makes this book memorable is Oates'writing. I've found that people either love her work or hate it with a passion. Count me as a fan. I'll admit that she could be more concise and she rarely writes anything too light and refreshing, but she never fails to elicit my emotions. In many cases, they are feelings that don't make me all that comfortable but they do make me think.
This book is worth reading although it will upset and sadden you. It's worth reading because you will react and you will examine a number of very important issues.
on May 28, 2002
This story says a lot about the unfairness and cruelty that one can come across in life. It also shows how bravery and love can pull one through and allow us to come through these difficult times stronger and better than ever.
When we first meet the Mulvaney's, the patriarch of the family, Mike, seems bigger than life and capable of great love for his family. When the going gets tough, however, we discover that he is a true coward and that his love for his family only lasts as long as their perfect image reflects well on himself. Once that image is shattered he quickly abandons them, first emotionally then physically.
It is Corinne, the mother of this broken clan, that emerges as the hero of the story. Through all of the struggles her faith and her love for her family (including her now worthless husband) remains true. As each of the children emerges into adulthood, they begin to realize this and it is this realization that allows the survivors to meet at the end and accept each other.
on March 17, 2002
This is a tremendously satisfying novel, in which Joyce Carol Oates goes about as deeply as a novelist can possibly go into the hearts and minds of her characters. In the process, she illustrates the terrible cost familiy loves and loyalties can exact on its members. We Were the Mulvaneys manages to be both terribly sad and strangely uplifting, without ever lapsing into melodrama. It documents the disintegration of an ostensibly invulnerable, loving, and happy American family in the wake of the date rape of the Mulvaney daughter, Marianne, on Valentine's Day, 1976. The effects of this incident resonate for decades after, and Oates is unsparing in exposing the extremes of love and cruelty that can exist within both the family unit and society as a whole when unwritten taboos are breached. And of course, palpably present is Oates's fixation with the specter of evil and violence that, for her, always lurks just below the gleaming surfaces of American life. Yet Oates does not restrict herself to writing a King Lear-like family tragedy, because We Were the Mulvaneys is also a testament to the ability of men and women to somehow survive and rebuild their lives, often in the face of terrible emotional betrayal and neglect.
The novel is mostly narrated by the youngest child, Judd Mulvaney, who communicates the vitality and contentment of the Mulvaney family in the years before "it" (as the rape is constantly referred to by family and community members) happened. The Mulvaney patriarch has a successful roofing business in a small town in Upstate New York, and the family lives in a beautiful old home on a small farm eight miles out of town. Family life on the farm is portrayed as happily chaotic, nurturing, and full of an assortment of reassuring rituals that affirm the Mulvaney's fundamental togetherness. All in all the reader is left in no doubt as to the strength of the Mulvaney family's love for and loyalty toward each other.
Yet when "it" happens, we see the fragility of the structure that undergirds family happiness and a family's standing in a small town community. Suddenly we see the enormous pride of the Mulvaney patriarch, and how that pride turns to shame and a terribly destructive anger once he and the family begin to be subtly ostracized by former friends and acquaintances. It is at the point where family members become irreversibly alienated from each other and are thrown on their own resources that the novel truly begins, and it's a remarkable journey.
Despite the fact that this is a quite large novel, Oates's grip on her narrative never falters, and she manages to lay bare the emotional scars and hopes of all six Mulvaneys as she takes them (and us) through the late seventies, the eighties, and the early nineties--twenty-five years in all. Oates obviously set very high standards for herself when she wrote We Were the Mulvaneys, and if you make it through this novel, you'll probably feel like I did--that she succeeded brilliantly.
on February 3, 2002
I just finished "We Were the Mulvaneys" tonight and I have to say it was a truly amazing piece of work. Joyce Carol Oates weaves so many different aspects into the story of the perfect family that falls to ruin after their daughter is raped at a party. This is a very, very detailed book. You learn about each and every family member in a very distinctive way. I think this is necessary to make you understand how such a family could be changed forever. It gives you the image of High Gate farm and the Mulvaney's to make you understand how and why they acted the way they did.
Mr. Mulvaney behaved atrociously in his complete dissociation from his daughter. Marianne had been the perfect daughter - a cheerleader, a Christian and a good girl who makes the mistake of drinking too much one night. There is a part in the book where it describes how Corinne and Mike (the parents) met. This to me was a clue to how he felt about his daughter after the rape. It was where he had said women were supposed to be morally superior to men. I think Mike not only couldn't deal with his daughter's pain and his inability to protect her but at the same time, he looked down on her too.
The rest of the characters are detailed well except for Mike Jr who I thought was kind of put in the background and not developed as well. I thought this book to be believable. Even the bad reactions didn't surprise as Marianne Mulvaney seemed to be prized on her good qualities but not seen fully by her family as anything other than a perfect daughter and sister. It also shows how one incident can change our lives forever.
It has a happy ending in a way. However, this book really broke my heart when I read it. I felt so much sadness for Marianne that it depressed me as well as lifted me up at the end. Even though it ends good, it doesn't detract from the years lost in separation. However, it shows that life does go on.
A brilliant novel and a difficult read. It brings out all the emotions. Beautiful!
on July 27, 2001
This book is so real it hurts to read it. Yes, you can say it's wordy. Yes, the choices characters make may seem unlike the choices you might make. But it is nevertheless a hauntingly beautiful portrait of a family where everyone is dyfunctional but makes it in the end- with the exception of Dad. And frankly, we are ready for a happy ending by the time this book ends. Oates is masterful at character development and motivation. You will feel like you know each of the Mulvaneys personally by the time the book is over. Her words (reminds me of Annie Proulx) paint full-color pictures of people, places, and emotions- so poignant at times I was moved to tears. As difficult and dark are the situations in this book, they were understandable and profound. If there was one thing I didn't like, it was the portrayal of Christian faith as a form of denying reality instead of as a genuine comfort. But then again, to many, this might just be the case. This is the kind of book you'll want to talk to someone about after you read it. I've never been able to get through another Oates book before this one but I'm going back to try. You'll feel strong emotions towards each of the characters in the book, good or bad, and if you're like me, you'll leave the pages wet when you finish.
on June 28, 2001
I could not believe how wonderful this book was. When I had a day off, I began reading it in the morning, and finished it in the evening. It was that good!!!
Ms. Oates's portayal of a hardworking family in upstate New York may not sound very exciting in the beginning. It's after the first few chapters the book all of a sudden takes a dark turn, following the events of Marianne's unfortunate situation at her prom (by telling, I'd be giving the story away, and why should I ruin it for you?). This is the type of work one could expect from Joyce Carol Oates.
It is this unthinkable event that takes the Mulvaney family from a once respected family to a shame-ridden clan seen in the eyes of Mt. Ephraim, New York. From there, the family tries to regain themselves not to their original status, but to a level where they can cope with the circumstances.
The story is told by Judd, the youngest member of the family who also appears to be the most neglected during this crisis. In his attempt to take a retrospect to his youth, he is able to show his family was able to overcome the obsticles that tried to tear them apart.
Though this story is on Oprah's Book List, don't read it simply for that. Read it for the story, because only then you will appreciate the awesome writing style of Joyce Carol Oates.
on June 19, 2001
You're going to read a novel that gives you the stuff that life is made of. If you cannot stand the heat, you know what to do. In this piece, the Mulvaneys are a very happy close-knit, no secrets held, type of family. There are Corinne and Michael Mulvaney the parents, and Marianne, Patrick and Judd the brothers. The trouble starts with Marianne who is date raped on a Valentine date,and who falls into despair just having to tell her perfect family about her the horendous happening. She expects sympathy, but that's when the house falls down; for she gets not an ounce of comfort or anything of that sort. Then her cowardly father send a message by his dear wife to inform the young lady that she has to leave his home. Her brothers are torn and confused by these happenings, as all personalities make deperate changes and everyone totally isolates themselves from each other. In the meanwhile Marianne drift from place to place, and life in the Mulvaney's house has come to a standstill. One cannot but help wondering why it is that the parents acting in such a unfeeling and callous way instead of being supportive of their daughter's dark fate. Readers, that's how life is, and it shows that their foundation was terribly weak as a family. A somewhat happy ending but this book takes a great deal of patience as it is quite long too, but it is very very real. That's the reason that I'm keeping mine safely in my library until I feel the need to reread it one day. Give it a go and you'll see what I mean. Joyce Carol Oates is a brilliant writer.
on May 31, 2001
Having given up on several of Oates' books in the past because of the relentless gloom of the stories she was telling and/or the endless narration, I was dubious about "Mulvaney's." But it was an Oprah Book Club selection and generally Oprah's picks are easy reads, quirky and usually uplifting. Yet I read negative review after negative review from Amazon readers. There was much complaint about how depressing the book was, how it rambled on and on with no obvious purpose. The reviews seemed to confirm my earlier impressions of Oates' books. However, I finally couldn't resist buying it. It wasn't quite as ponderous as some of Oates' books I had attempted earlier and the first few paragraphs were intriguing.
Imagine my surprise when I found that I could hardly wait to get back to it every night. The criticisms of the family being too good to be true and then becoming too dysfunctional to be true seem to come from readers who missed the many clues that the Mulvaney's were not such a perfect family. That golden depiction of the early period was how the family seemed through the eyes of a child, a child who sees everything through the prism of innocence and wonder.
The reaction of the parents and siblings to the family tragedy was not what we would like to see or idealistically what we think we should or would do. It very much parallels the end of childhood when innocence is lost. Life is not a warm and fuzzy, cute and quirky TV sitcom with predictable twists and turns.
I found the evolution of the various members of the Mulvaney family to have the authority of what real life is like. We don't always -- heck, we don't usually choose the noble or sensible path. We are driven by strengths and weaknesses we are hardly aware of. Life is messy and confounding. Even the last chapter is believable because I have seen similar evolutions in my sixty-plus years of living in a family and being intimately involved with other families.
Will life for the Mulvaneys after the reunion continue the happy promise of that 4th of July? Probably not. Life IS messy and unpredictable. In the world of grown-ups things do not always come out with the ends all neatly tied in a bow.
"We Were The Mulvaneys" is one Joyce Carol Oates book I really enjoyed. Maybe I'll go back and take another look at the ones I didn't finish years ago.
on April 29, 2001
I have to say that I'm often disappointed with the reactions to various books by American readers. For instance, I still can't understand why books like "Bridget Jones' Diary," John Grisham's books, and "The Ya Ya's" are so successful and have so many people gushing over how good they are. Those books are so superficial!
I LOVED "We Were the Mulvaneys." I feel that every main character was very well-developed. I certainly did not agree with the parents' actions, but that doesn't mean they didn't react in a realistic way, especially given the time period and their background circumstances.
Joyce Carol Oates did a wonderful job in not only developing the characters, but also in describing the setting. I could feel the wind of High Point Farm, and smell the animals. Yes, the plot may have moved too slowly for John Grisham fans, but to me, every detail was essential to the story's unfolding.
Many reviewers get mixed up in distinguishing between what the characters do and the author's writing ability. But one doesn't have to approve of how Mike Sr. behaves to appreciate Joyce Carol Oates as a masterful writer.
I loved this book, and I miss it already!