Book Report: We Were The Mulvaneys

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We Were The Mulvaneys was published in 1996 and penned by the inimitable Joyce Carol Oates. Oates is an extremely rare author having written somewhere around 40 novels. FORTY. That is nuts. As with all of our great authors, Oates’ interview with The Paris Review is stellar and you should check it out.

We Were The Mulvaneys is an epic family drama set in a small, rural town in upstate New York.  The Mulvaney family consists of dad and mom, Michael Sr. and Corinne, and their four children, Mike Jr., Patrick, Marianne and Judd. The novel is presented as a family history, narrated by the youngest Mulvaney child, Judd. Judd sets down his understanding of his family, and how their lives fell apart and came back together again.

The novel starts with the Mulvaneys as touched by a certain magic – they are happy, loud, loving, hard-working. The Mulvaney homestead is a beautiful 1800s farmhouse painted a whimsical lavender; the barn and surrounding land is teeming with life. We know from Oates’ description of their place in the world that the Mulvaneys are special. They seem to have a particular talent for happiness and closeness as a family that is rare and precious. Michael Sr. and Corinne have been married 23 years but are as loving and special in each other’s eyes as they were when they first met. Michael Sr. is a successful businessman, Chamber of Commerce member and member of the Country Club. Corinne is a farm-girl, loving mother, doting wife, devout Christian, hardworking and quirky, she is beautiful in the way of women who are content. Michael Jr. is the star of the high school football team and Mr. Popular. Marianne is the only daughter and unspoken favorite; she is beautiful, smart, popular, a cheerleader, faithful Christian and the picture of kindness. Patrick is the inscrutable Mulvaney; he is logical, intelligent and quiet. And Judd is the baby of the family, he is their collective memory, good and bad.

The Mulvaneys seem perfect, and we get the sense among others in town that the Mulvaneys are a little too high and mighty for their own good. Everything that happens in the novel centers around Marianne Mulvaney and one terrible night.

On Homecoming night, Marianne goes to an after-party, where she finds herself in the attentions of a handsome and popular senior boy, Zachary Lundt, the son of one of her father’s good friends. Zachary makes Marianne a screwdriver, or were there multiple screwdrivers?, and makes her feel special, and at some point during the party Marianne’s friends lose track of her. The morning after the dance, Marianne calls her mother asking if someone can pick her up from her friend’s house. Corinne is busy and sends Patrick to pick Marianne up and he notices immediately that something is wrong with his sister, but Patrick is the Mulvaney least likely to involve himself in family business and so, he asks her nothing. A couple of days pass before Marianne reveals that she was raped at the party. Except rape is not a word the Mulvaney family will ever use to describe what happened to Marianne – she was hurt or she was assaulted, but never raped. Oates builds up the tension to Marianne’s reveal expertly, because even though we know that she has been raped (sadly, what else could it be), when Marianne finally tells what she’s been through, it is still heartbreaking and somehow unexpected. Marianne blames herself completely, she drank, and she never drinks, so she doesn’t remember exactly what happened but she knows that it is her fault.

Marianne refuses to file charges against Zachary. I think that Marianne is equal parts smart and helpless – she knows that she has been raped but she also knows that she was drinking alcohol and that any charges will come down to her word against her attacker’s. This is a rural town in 1976, and Marianne knows she doesn’t stand a chance. And so she copes, she forgives, she moves on. As a reader it is heartbreaking, and yes, unsatisfying, because we want justice for her but I think Marianne saves herself the only way that she knows how. The effect on the rest of the Mulvaneys is extreme and varied. Michael Sr. cannot get over what happened to his daughter and he does not understand why Marianne won’t pursue justice. He can’t cope with the fact that he was unable to protect his Marianne and he cannot bear to even look at her knowing her pain. And on top of that, the social repercussions are enormous. No one in town wants to be involved with the Mulvaneys. Michael Sr. starts to lose business contracts and no one at the country club wants to associate with him. Corinne is heartbroken and helpless. She feels so acutely the violation of her daughter and her failure to recognize what happened to her; and at the same time, she is trying to hold the rest of her family together as Mike Jr. joins the Marines to get away from his family, Patrick seeks revenge against Zachary and Judd is basically just left to fend for himself.

Michael Sr. and Corinne make the decision to send Marianne away to live with a cousin. Marianne accepts this decision with grace and forgiveness. I, on the other hand, spent the remainder of the novel ashamed of Michael and Corinne. Because the thing is, they sacrificed their only daughter for their own social standing. Marianne was hurt in the most vicious way and her parents basically confirm her belief that it was her fault. I know that her parents love her and that it is hard for them to get past what they feel is their failure to keep her safe, but the worst part is that that isn’t the reason they send her away. Michael Sr. cannot get past his own pride. His standing as an “important” member of the community is over and that is what ruins him.

We Were The Mulvaneys is rich in detail and emotional sensitivity. This is only my second Oates novel and for whatever reason, I was expecting something less readable. I don’t really know why but I was wrong. There is so much that happens in this story and you should definitely read it to see how (or if) the Mulvaneys are able to piece their family, and lives, back together. Oates is a challenging writer and We Were The Mulvaneys presents a very true depiction of how life can become messy and how what seems perfect can be so easily broken. If you’re looking for beautiful writing, give Oates a try.


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