1990s Chunkster Classics

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

We Were the Mulvaneys

Five words from the blurb: family, farm, rape, tragic, consequences

Joyce Carol Oates was one of those authors I’d always wanted to try. She has written over forty novels so it was difficult to know where to start, but a quick Twitter conversation suggested We Were the Mulvaneys might be her best, so I bought a copy.

The Mulvaneys are a fairly wealthy family who live happily on a big farm, seventy miles south of Lake Ontario. The three brothers and their sister, Marianne, grow up as well respected members of their community, but everything changes when Marianne is raped and the family must cope with this massive emotional upheaval.

I initially loved this book. The descriptions of the family and their surroundings were vivid and engaging.

You could do an inventory of the Mulvaney staircase and have a good idea what the family was like. Staircases in old farmhouses like ours were oddly steep, almost vertical, and narrow. Our lower stairs, though, were always cluttered at the edges, for here, as everywhere in the house, all sorts of things accumulated, set down “temporarily” and not picked up again, nor even noticed, for weeks.

The pace was slow, but I didn’t mind as I loved becoming a part of their happy world. Their little stories about every day life were compelling and I came to feel I knew exactly what it would be like to live amongst them.

Unfortunately things went downhill after about 100 pages and I’m in the unusual position of having conflicting reasons why. On the one hand, I want to criticise the book for being too ordinary, failing to add anything new or interesting to the sad story of teenager who has been raped; but on the other hand, I didn’t think the plot was very realistic and POTENTIAL SPOILER HIGHLIGHT TO READ I thought that such a strong family would have bonded together, not fallen apart in that way. I guess the truth is that I just got bored. The plot was too slow to justify the length and I fell out of love with the characters.

Joyce Carol Oates is clearly a talented writer and I can see myself enjoying some of her other books, but I’m afraid this one wasn’t original or entertaining enough for me.


Which other  novels by Joyce Carol Oates would you recommend?

The thoughts of other bloggers:

 It is such a complete portrait of the human experience… Book Lust

…it was worth reading, if only to quench years of curiosity. Literary Amnesiac

I could write more about what happens, but I can’t be bothered to, which sounds dreadful, but that’s how the book made me feel by the end.  Book Snob

16 replies on “We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates”

I love Oates for her ability to create dark, atmospheric stories. But then again, my favorites are her shorter works. Beasts is a novella that I adored, and her short story, “Where Are You Going? Where Have you Been” is excellent.

Andi, Yes, I love her ability to create that dark atmosphere. I think my main problem was that this book was too long so I can see her shorter works being better – I’ll keep an eye out for Beasts 🙂

I haven’t read this but it has been recommended to me as well. Rape is one of her themes, she has returned to again and again. I thought “Rape – A Love Story” was well done though. I’ve read The Falls but that was dragging but I loved Foxfire. Not all the books I have loved have been winners for you, so . . . Maybe you’d like short stories?

Caroline, I’m not a big fan of short stories, but I’d be interested in her shorter novels/novellas. You seem to have a greater tolerance for slow plots than I do, but I’ll keep an eye out for Foxfire – that isn’t one I’ve heard of before.

Oh dear, that’s a shame you didn’t like it that much, Jackie.
Oates is an author who divides opinion though – personally I found ‘Mulvaneys’ almost impossible to put down and flew through it in two or three days. It’s one of my all-time favourite novels.
‘Broke Heart Blues’, ‘Middle Age’ and ‘Rape: A Love Story’ are all excellent as are many of her short stories. I also really liked ‘Missing Mom’ (aka ‘Mother, Missing’) which is almost a crime novel. In fact the only one of hers I’ve read so far that I didn’t like was ‘I’ll Take You There’.

PS: regarding your spoiler, I don’t think Oates is all that interested in being hugely realistic – as well as the gothic aspect to her work, she also verges on melodrama a lot of the time. One of her ongoing themes is the way people are perceived and often mythologised (Marilyn Monroe in ‘Blonde’, John Reddy Heart in ‘Broke Heart Blues’…) and the Mulvaneys represent an ideal American Dream-esque family and the book for me was about the disintegration and collapse of that. The opening line “We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?” pretty much tells you where the story is going to go – for a while they were perfect, but their moment doesn’t last, and the ‘remember us’ implies how quickly they might be forgotten. The Dream was fleeting.

And did you not shed a little tear for Muffin?

David, Sorry I didn’t love one of your favourites, but I do like my books to be realistic (or very entertaining if they veer away from that). I liked the idea that we can forget people/families very quickly and that element could have worked well with a more realistic plot.

I’m afraid I didn’t shed a tear for Muffin (I’m a dog person 😉 ) but do agree that Oates created some good emotional scenes.

I think ‘Missing Mom’ is sounding like the next Oates I should read – I can see her writing working well in the crime genre. Thanks for all the recommendations!

Jackie… what!!!, three and a half stars although you say you got bored!

What an annoying book. The third book in all my years of reading that I did not finish. I got to page 150 and had to do the unthinkable…. give up. And boy did it feel good to have the strength to do so. Goes against my grain. Guess I’m getting older.

I just didn’t want to hear the sob story! Isn’t that awful. All this build up led to a predictabele anticlimatic rape??? And now I’m expected to sit through how these boring family members are going to deal with it?. Not I, my friend. But before all this we had to endure pages and pages of who was given what cutsie nickname… then another masive description of all the adorable pets and how they ended up in the family home…then back to more nicknames. Good god, someone moved my book marker; I could have sworn I had just read that.

I understand Oates is trying to portray how unexpected tragedy can enter into our mundane lives at any moment but when this is done at snails-pace something is lost and the “who cares” syndrome sets in. I just wanted to scream “give me something new here”. Help. She’s put me off reading ‘The Burgess Boys’ now.

Ifi, LOL! It sounds like I enjoyed it a lot more than you did! I loved the first third and several other scenes within the book. Yes, I got bored at times and I agree it was repetitive in places, but I didn’t abandon it. It had enough to entertain me to the end and I was impressed by the writing quality. 3.5 stars = good, but not great. Memorable, but not perfect. Perhaps I shhould read ‘The Burgess Boys’ now?!

I’ve enjoyed most of the Oates books I’ve read, although I think the long ones are just too long, that seems to be the comment I’ve made on several, and she doesn’t hold back on horrific scenes either, particularly in The Tattooed Girl, which I found painful to read with its descriptions of violence and dirt. I preferred Middle Age and The Gravedigger’s Daughter – both long books. And even though it is enormously long I thought Blonde was excellent.

I haven’t read We Were the Mulvaneys, although I’ve had a copy for a while now, so I haven’t read your spoiler!

Margaret, Thanks for the recommendations – I haven’t heard of either of those two. I’m a bit worried that you mention their length, but I might pick them up if I come across a copy.

I have read two of Oates’ books, almost ten years ago. I read ‘them’ which I didn’t get at all and remember only faintly. And then I read “Rape: A Love Story” which I remember much more clearly. So even with this little bit of experience with Oates, it seems I also fall in line with preferring the shorter work over her longer work.

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