Joyce Carol Oates: We Were the Mulvaneys (review)

For the Mulvaneys were a family in which everything that happened to them was precious and everything that was precious was stored in memory and everyone had a history. (p. 5)

What if you had it all? Would you dare to just sit back and relax and enjoy it or would you constantly fear that something would happen that would take it all away? If you had the perfect family, what would it take to break it all apart? Well, unlucky for the Mulvaneys, they live in a Joyce Carol Oates novel so of course they are going to find out just what it takes to break their family apart.

Corinne and Michael Mulvaney live on the beautiful High Point Farm just outside Mt. Ephraim, New York. They have 4 gorgeous children – Michael Jr. (the jock), Patrick (the nerd), Marianne (the beautiful and popular only girl) and Judd (the little brother). The parents still love each other, the dad runs his own successful business and the kids are doing good. They are happy, the family get along with each other, everything is right. The farm is wonderful, the kids each have their own horse as well as a lot of dogs and cats and other animals. Everything is just perfect.

But then – something happens. Something happen to Marianne. On Valentine’s Day 1976, Marianne is what we now will call date raped (probably). When dad finds out, he hurries off to the home of the alleged perpetrator where he slams the boy against the wall as well as bruising his ribs. The two families agree not to press charges against each other – something Marianne in particular is happy about since not only does she want to protect her father, she also feels like the date rape was her fault since she got drunk.

But how do you move on after something like that? What do you do when your daughter and sister has been date raped? Michael and Corinne is trying desperately to get it all together – but especially Michael is failing, and when Corinne is realizing how far out Michael is and that she has to take care of him first, they decide that Marianne has to go away.

How had she been blind for so long, these weeks? – how had she missed understanding? – here was her first love, her firstborn. The others, the children born of her body, even Marianne, were hardly more than dreams, ripples on the surface of a dark impenetrable water. From this man, from his body, their bodies had sprung. He was her first love. (p. 185)

So Marianne is shipped off to live with some relative, Michael Jr. has joined the Marines and Patrick is away at college, leaving Judd and his parents to try and figure out how to move on with their lives. Michael Sr. is pulled down into alcoholism, trying to get lawyers who will sue … everybody almost and he starts getting violent. Corinne tries desperately to keep it all together and Judd is the one really experiencing the family falling apart, the less frequent phone calls, the not inviting Marianne to holidays, the selling of the family home.

Oh  my, this is a depressing novel. It’s wonderful and awesome and so well-written in the familiar JCO style, but it’s so sad. I have read it before and back then, I think I was only concerned with ‘what happens next?’ and ‘how is this all going to turn out?’ – but this time, I was more concerned with the why of the parents’ seemingly rejection of their daughter. (Spoilers ahead!) And the answer is simple, but powerful, I think. As Patrick states frequently throughout the book, they are casualties too. They don’t know how to handle the situation. The father wants to find someone to punish, he’s desperately trying to make his world make sense again. But can’t. The mother is so in love with the father that she is ready to do everything to save him – including sending her daughter away. I think the father’s actions make sense – he lost himself when his daughter was hurt. He lost his sense of self, his idea of the father being the protector of the family. And he couldn’t handle it. He couldn’t deal with being reminded of it every time he saw her. In the end, it has always been Marianne who was the favorite child and the failure to protect that special girl from harm, destroyed him and destroyed the family.

I’m less sure about the mother’s action though. She has to choose between the husband she loves and one of her children. An impossible choice, yes, but one she has to make. And she chooses the father – thereby causing Marianne, the real victim, to be sent away. Is it the right choice? It’s impossible to say. Michael Sr. never gets over what happened. We have no way of knowing if he would have gotten over it if Marianne had stayed. I think she made the wrong choice – I think I would have tried to heal the family. She still lost her husband. But maybe her choice kept more harm from being done. There’s no way of knowing.

I think that’s one of the things Oates does best. She takes a situation, describes it somewhat but  not completely, she leaves it to the reader to fill out the details and that way, you as the reader become more engaged in the situation the characters are in. And I really like that there’s a brief essay by Oates in my edition, where she states that she probably wouldn’t have made the same choice as Corinne.

I keep thinking that it’s devastating how little it takes to break a family. Of course, I’m not insinuating that date rape is a small thing. What I mean is, that something taken only a tiny bit of time can have repercussions for so many people for so long. It completely changes their lives, neither of them are ever the same again. It’s shocking how quickly your life can change. And how little you can do about it.

As parents we do our best to give our children the tools to navigate the world with. But in some situations, we’re all lost. You have the dream, but dreams shatter. And what are we left with? Memories of better times … and the hope that some day, it will all be all right.

What is a family, after all, except memories? (p. 4)

  • Title: We Were the Mulvaneys
  • Author: Joyce Carol Oates
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • Year: 2008 (original 1996)
  • Pages: 453 pages (this edition comes with 17 pages P.S. with info about the author, recommendations and more)
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

4 thoughts on “Joyce Carol Oates: We Were the Mulvaneys (review)

  1. This certainly sounds compelling; I have a few of her books here, and I’ve read a couple of her slimmer works, but not this one. It’s impossible to discuss her and not discuss how much she’s written, isn’t it!? Mind-boggling. One of the ones that I’m particularly interested in reading is Marya; I think I read somewhere that it’s a character with whom she particularly identified.

    • She is amazing! She writes and writes and writes and although not all of her books are fantastic, they are all good. I’ve never read a rubbish book by her. I didn’t know that about Marya – I need to read that one soon then!

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