We Were The Mulvaneys
By Joyce Carol Oates
Penguin Group 1997
From my shelves
The Mulvaneys are a blessed family. The family business is doing well and their home is filled with the loud, happy chaos of many children and animals. Mike and Corrine are proud and supportive of their children and each one of the kids has their own special place in the family. Michael Jr. is the oldest and a star athlete, Marianne is the only girl and a beauty, Patrick is obsessed with science, and Judd is the baby of the family. The family is respected in the community and their futures look very bright. But their happiness comes to an abrupt end when something terrible happens to Marianne. The family is ripped apart and it seems that only a miracle could bring the Mulvaneys back together.
This is my first time reading a Joyce Carol Oates novel and it seems less like reading a book and more like an immersive experience. Oates is so meticulous in creating both her characters and her locations that you feel as if you are sitting off to the side watching the family drama take place. This book has a particular resonance with current events, although it was written almost two decades ago and takes place in the 1970s and 1980s. In all this time, we haven't learned how to care for victims without exploiting them further or how to support our neighbors when they need us the most.
The members of the Mulvaney family make some truly terrible decisions. But perhaps it's an indication of how invested you become as a reader when you find yourself saying out loud, "Oh no, don't do that," and "Really? That's how you are going to react?". The Mulvaneys have the capacity to wound each other as only loved ones do and they wield that power brutally. As Judd narrates, he realizes even his own inability to really convey the events as they happened. He knows that "....nothing between human beings isn't uncomplicated and there's no way to speak of human beings without simplifying and misrepresenting them."
This is a long book and it often feels that way, if only because Oates loves description. You will be well acquainted with every single inch of the Mulvaney farm by the time you are done. This story is a very slow burn, which turns off a lot of readers. I think you have to approach it the way you would a Charles Dickens story or a big old Russian novel. These are characters that you are going to spend a long time with - for them, it's a lifetime even if it's only a few days for you.
This novel is perhaps best described as a family saga or an American tragedy. Because the Mulvaneys had everything, their downfall is that much more tragic. Their inability to pull themselves back up and the unwillingness of their community to help them is painful to experience. In We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates achieves what few authors can - she makes you care about her characters at their strongest and brightest and then just as much at their basest, their cruelest, and their most broken moments.