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After twenty-five previous novels over the span of three decades, Joyce Carol Oates accomplished something with We were the Mulvaneys in 1996 that she’d never done before: she hit the number-one spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Although the number of copies planned for the first printing indicated that publishers expected the book to connect with the public in a big way, that unprecedented rise to bestseller status for Oates was clearly not just the result of producing a strong story recognized as one of great accomplishment by critics.
While book reviewers across the country welcomes We Were the Mulvaneys with a shower of high praise, it was really just one critic in particular who played the biggest role in making the book the success it became: Oprah Winfrey.
Once Oprah Winfrey announced that We Were the Mulvaneys was the inaugural selection for the 2001 edition of the Oprah Book Club, that first printing of 75,000 proved insufficient. The sudden spike in sales of hundreds of thousands of copies not only catapulted the book to the top of the bestseller list, but also stimulated interest from the Hallmark Network, which produced a made-for-TV film in 2002 that earned three nominations and spurred even more sales.
The long-delayed commercial blockbuster status for Oates was particularly sweet coming as it did for this novel. We Were the Mulvaneys is unusually long for an Oates novel and was one of the more time-consuming efforts in her career. That extra effort reaped a harvest—especially with a book that also veers from her established pattern by virtue of an ending that within the universe of Joyce Carol Oates actually can be termed happy.
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
I used to volunteer at a local thrift store. My area of expertise was the books. I picked through donated boxes of books for what was sellable, organized the overstuffed bookshelf in the store, and put books out to display. One day, as I was sorting a freshly donated box, I came across a copy of We Were the Mulvaneys. Curious, I opened it to find exactly the sort of family epic I have a hankering for every once in a while. That copy of We Were the Mulvaneys went home with someone else, but I’ve always been meaning to read it.
We Were the Mulvaneys concerns the destruction and reconstruction of an American family, starting with the children in high school and ending with the eldest child pushing forty. The parents, Michael and Corinne, are a loving, cheerful couple, with three sons–Michael Jr., Patrick, and Judd–and a daughter, Marianne. They are respected in their rural community in upstate New York; the children are popular and well-liked at their high school. They are a very lucky family. That luck runs out when Marianne is raped after a prom in 1976 by a son of a well-respected family that the Mulvaneys are powerless against. This assault sets off the slow destruction of the Mulvaneys, which forms the bulk of the novel.
Each Mulvaney is painstakingly realized. Patrick, Marianne, and Corinne stand out, with the most distinctive personalities–Patrick, a creature of logic and science, struggles to define himself as something other than a Mulvaney. Pious Marianne, after being forced to leave home, has trouble growing up and coming into her own. Corinne’s obstinate cheerfulness and love for her children must deal with the harshness of their new situation. Michael, the father, grows into a tragic figure in the second half of the book, although we certainly feel sorry for him when he realizes the entire community he respects would rather defend his daughter’s rapist than her. Michael Jr., or Mike, is less of a presence, although he’s certainly one of the most successful Mulvaneys. The baby of the family, Judd, is the least realized.
Perhaps this is because Judd is nominally the narrator. I’m confused by Oates’ use of Judd as a narrator, as she often slips into third person with scenes involving Judd. Rather than coming off as a stylistic choice, it feels as though she couldn’t make up her mind and passed it off as such. The novel often strays away from Judd, dealing with Marianne’s or Patrick’s thoughts. I don’t know why Judd is a narrator at all. It’s a stumble that floats back into your vision every time the third person switches to first without warning.
Oates’ writing goes down smoothly, as most books by experienced authors do–they’ve found and perfected their voice. Her penchant for the occasional run-on sentence gives me uneasy flashbacks to reading Absalom, Absalom!, from which I have never truly recovered. She’s got a wonderful eye for just the right detail (although there are stumbles–do I really need to know about the consistency of Mike’s urine?), and evokes all the right notes for her characters, despite their various ages and backgrounds. A scene where a young Judd is almost paralyzed by the passing of time as marked by his heartbeat particularly hit home for me.
Oates’ aggressively leisurely pace can drag at times, but it’s also useful for playing up suspense, mostly in the parts of the novel dealing with Marianne. It can be hard to care about Judd, our narrator, when the stories of the rest of his family are much more interesting–the lion’s share of his involvement in the main story is intertwined with Patrick’s story. Oates, like the best of mothers, devotes equal time to all the Mulvaneys. I will readily admit to flipping ahead to check where Marianne or Patrick were at any given point.
Reader, be warned–this novel can be grim. During the second half, hope seems elusive for the Mulvaneys, destroyed by their community and scattered across America. There’s a prolonged section dealing with the death of Muffin, Marianne’s beloved cat, which had me in tears. In fact, there’s a great deal of animal death. While there’s the expected deaths of animals on the farm, Oates brusquely lists the demises of the Mulvaneys’ remaining cats in a particularly cruel paragraph or two. The epilogue offers refreshing hope for both the reader and the Mulvaneys, but the novel certainly makes you work for it.
Bottom line: An American tragedy with a glimmer of hope at the end, We Were the Mulvaneys is a portrait of a family destructing, then reconstructing. While the pace can drag, each member of the family is so fully fleshed out that you can’t help but care for them. The next time you need a tragedy, reach for this.
I rented this book from the public library.
4 Stars, Adults, Audience, Contemporary Fiction, Features, Fiction, Fiction, Genre, Medium, Novel, Ratings, Reviews
joyce carol oates, plume