We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

I’m trying not to let my MWF-JCO experience influence my thoughts on Oates’s much-admired family saga, We Were the Mulvaneys.

The story of the Mulvaney family spans twenty-five years and is told from the perspective of the youngest son, Judd. In the beginning, the family is blessed – a successful business, a sprawling farm property (with ponies), and popular children (a cheerleader, a football star and a science-whiz-kid). A single incident becomes a turning point in the fortunes of the Mulvaneys and bit by bit, everything (and everyone) falls apart.

There were exquisite nuggets of truth in JCO’s words that stopped me in my tracks, words that got to the heart of a matter so succinctly that I couldn’t help but admire her deftness – ‘Nothing between humans is uncomplicated’ and ‘But you can’t disappoint me because I don’t love you’ and ‘There are different kinds of homesickness to fit different kinds of families.

But one line stood out, and it represented all that I liked and didn’t like about this book –

In a family, what isn’t spoken is what you listen for.

I was really listening to the Mulvaneys. Listening hard. The tragedy that befalls them (Marianne is date-raped) is described. The days and months and years that follow are described. Marianne’s anguish is described. Mike Jr.’s denial is described. Patrick’s need for revenge is described. But at the crux of the story – Michael’s rejection of his daughter and Corinne’s lack of response to this situation – there is silence. And I was listening but try as I might, I couldn’t truly understood Michael’s treatment of Marianne and JCO didn’t help me. Were the lengthy description of antique auctions, Patrick’s travels, and Muffin’s (the cat) kidney problems a better use of words than Michael’s agony? I don’t think so.

3/5 Dark. Meandering.

Marianne makes Patrick a minestrone soup with whatever is at hand and he says it’s the best soup he’s ever tasted.

‘Sunday night casseroles made of leftovers in combinations that weren’t repeatable.’

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16 responses

  1. Perhaps JCO was attempting to illustrate how hard it is for family members to internalise just how damaging an attack as “invisible” as date rape is to their daughter/sister. Parents and siblings get on with their lives, particularly if the victim puts on a brave face, while the girl in this case might have to deal with the psychological damage for the rest of her life.

    • I think that’s right – in this case, the father was unable to achieve any kind of legal retribution for his daughter and it became all consuming (but somewhat misguided as well). The frustration as a reader was that JCO did well at the interior life of some characters but not others.

  2. I’ve had this book for years and started it once and got side-tracked. Not sure if I’ll ever get back to it. I have a whole shelf of her books I’ve been collecting and have yet to read one! I know, I’m weird!

    My son said he thinks there’s a movie based on this?

  3. I saw JCO speak at an author event at my local bookstore, and she is riveting. I highly recommend hearing her speak about books & writing if you ever get a chance! I felt much the same as you about We Were the Mulvaneys. It’s not a book for everyone. It is a book that I feel I should re-read at some point as I have always wondered if I missed something in the book. Great post!

    • Maybe she was jet-lagged when she visited Melbourne?! Or maybe the topic didn’t thrill her – she didn’t say much at all about her writing or characters unfortunately (she mostly talked about Trump).

  4. Like Peggy I’ve had this book for years. I did start reading it but even though I’ve loved other books by JCO I just didn’t feel like reading it at the time and put to one side to read other books. Like Peggy I haven’t got back to it yet. Maybe one day I will.

  5. Pingback: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – a literary mixtape | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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