A family of six disintegrates after a daughter is raped by a high-school student. It happens to the wealthy Mulvaneys in upstate New York. The disgrace--there is some question if it was rape--sends the father to drink and financial ruin, the girl leaves home, the others follow. By the author of What I Lived For.
Much of her style irritates me. Oates overuses the exclamation point. She indulges too often in the post-modern habit of piling on lists rather than the carefully chosen detail. So many details and description that made me want to skim or just struck me as wrong. (A cat is named "E.T."--in 1974 in terms of the story--although the film wasn't released until 1982; Patrick is said not to be a genius with an I.Q. of 151 but the genius range starts at 140. Lots of factual errors I picked up that stripped authorial authority.)
I think my dislike for the book though is based more on feeling none of her characters come alive for me, not even Judd the narrator. Her Mulvaneys seem a bit too precious at first. Each has their pet name(s). There's the father Micheal (Curly), the mother Corinne (Whistle), and their children: the eldest Michael, Jr, a star jock, (Mule); the nerdy Patrick destined for the Ivy League (Pinch); the too-saintly cheerleader Marianne (Button); and the youngest, Judd (Ranger). Co-starring are a zoo of horses, dogs, cats, canaries etc. Marianne in particular irritated me. She seemed too good to be true and to have "victim" stamped on her forehead. This is how she's described at one point:
"Button" Mulvaney was so sweet, so sincere, so pretty, so--what exactly?--glimmering-luminous--as if her soul shone radiant in her face you could smile at her, even laugh at her, but you couldn't not love her.
Then it all falls apart for the family--hard, fast and the next two-thirds of the book is miserable. And I'm not sure, despite a precipitating tragedy, how it went from something so rosy to that--it's as if all the characters do a 180. The dark side and what motivated it seemed as unreal, yet as stereotyped, as the idyllic, good side.
The Mulvaneys live on a farm with lots of livestock and pets. They all do farm chores besides their homework, while their father's time is taken up mostly by his roofing business, which has taken awhile to cultivate. They are comfortably well-off, and everything seems to be going very well for them.
Then, It happens: Marianne, a junior in high school, is raped on prom night. It takes her a couple days to let anyone know, but her doctor can see the evidence of what happened, except that which she has bathed away. Marianne's memory is fogged by the spiked punch at one of the parties, and she finds that she cannot really recall the exact sequence of events, how she came to be alone with a boy named Zachary, who was not her date. She is an emotional mess, and it takes her a long time to return to school. In the meantime, her father reacts in the worst possible way, and since Zachary happens to be a son of the social elite of this small town, Mike Mulvaney's reputation and business suffer. I believe the terms date rape and acquaintance rape were new in the 1980s, so at this time, especially since Marianne was intoxicated, she could not have won a case against the rapist. She didn't try, she certainly did not want to publicly testify.
Eventually, Mike Mulvaney becomes so obsessed with this injustice, and so out of control, that he can no longer bear the sight of his only daughter. Deep down, there are guilt feelings, perhaps feelings of impotence for not being able to protect her, but whatever his exact reason, Marianne is sent away to live with a distant relative of Corinne's. It was hard for me to believe that Corinne would sign off on this, but then, she was in love with her husband and she was a rather careless mother. Marianne is never invited home again, not even for Christmas. Ironically, her father had been disowned by his father, and it hurt him that even his mother and sisters fell in line behind him. Marianne, at least, still has her brothers, and Patrick is especially outraged by the way Marianne is being treated.
The rest of the novel follows each of Corinne and Mike Mulvaney's children as they grow up and launch themselves, while their father's business goes bankrupt and he becomes increasingly abusive toward those around him. Marianne, particularly, leads a hapharzard, or what her mother calls "rag quilt" existence, thanks to getting absolutely no help from anyone. The siblings end up very scattered, and keeping up with each other is difficult during their young adulthood.
Marianne is an interesting character to me because she never feels anger. In fact, she is so well disciplined to thank God for everything, that she is even ashamed of crying so much; it's such an indulgence! She is very, very sad and damaged. Her oldest brother, Mike Jr., manages to run away by joining the Marines, but the rest of them are afflicted. Patrick is angry enough for all of them, and does actually carry out a plan of revenge against his sister's rapist, while Judd, the youngest, must suffer not only the absence of his dear sister, but also the selling off of their farm, the beautiful lavendar farm house, and their much-loved horses. All his childhood memories seem to be erased, even his sister. Judd sees The Fall and gets knocked around by a father he doesn't know anymore.
There are parts of this novel that drag just a bit, but not for long. In the end, the reader is dying to know what becomes of each one of these siblings--especially Marianne.
It's a trip.
This is an excellent and powerful work from Oates. The story is told primarily from the perspective of three of the children--Judd, Patrick, and Marianne--although Judd is introduced as the primary storyteller at the outset of the novel and both of the parents, Mike and Corinne, have their own chapters. The emotion in this novel is raw--the event damages each of the Mulvaneys in their own way, and no one of them will ever be the same. But there is redemption in the way that each of the children ultimately overcomes the event and comes into his/her own as an adult. Their struggles against the ghosts of their past are not easy, but the journey is an emotional one that Oates shares intimately with the reader.
This is an excellent book if you are interested in a rich character study. A wonderful lyrical storyteller, Oates makes parts of this novel sing with rich language and settings. If you enjoy literary fiction, this is a book for you.
While I mentioned that Judd was the narrator, that isn't quite right. Sometimes the narrator is Judd, and sometimes it seems to be a third person omniscient narrator. Is that just Judd filling in what he surmises happened? That isn't quite clear. There are about 50-75 pages where Judd isn't mentioned as the narrator at all. Then, all of a sudden, he begins talking at the beginning of a chapter. It felt like Oates forgot that Judd was supposed to be narrating and then suddenly remembered him. However, the alternating between Judd and an omniscient narrator worked much better in the fourth quarter of the book, which leaves me wondering if it was intentional. Maybe it was unintentional at first, and then she decided to just go with it. Either way, it is jolting when Judd reappears in the middle of the book after having been gone for so long.
Another jolting issue with the book is the presence of anachronisms. For one, the family has a cat named E.T. in 1976. The film E.T. wouldn't come out for another six years. Also, there are teenagers in 1976 named Austen and Zachary. Both of these names were very popular baby names in the 1990s when the book was written, but they would not have been names commonly used around 1960 when these characters would have been born. Anachronistic names can jolt a reader out of the time and place of a story's narrative and make the book less effective. This is another thing that got better towards the end of the book, where I didn't notice anymore anachronisms.
One thing that really struck me about this book was the level of detail that Joyce writes with. That is something that can get on my nerves if a writer slathers layers of detail onto a story with no sense of purpose, which I thought Joyce was doing early in the book. However, as I continued to read, I realized that she was painting a picture that enabled me to get inside of the heads of her characters because I now knew every angle of their lives and the impact everything had on them. This level of detail had become a strength by the end of the book, and I realized that it was necessary and intentional to tell the story.
By the end, I thought this was a very good but very inconsistently frustrating book that was plagued by a muddled middle despite a good start and a very good finish. I was left wondering if Oates felt pressured to publish quickly and didn't have time to clean the middle up as much as she could have. The ending, however, was great, and would have been even better without the epilogue that, while good, wasn't really a necessary addition to the story. The story ended well without it.
Written, as interpreted by the youngest boy of the family (Judd, Ranger, among half a dozen other nicknames), before and after a calamity that changes their family forever, the Mulvaneys are seemingly the prized possession of American life in the mid-1970s.
Each one of the four miniature Mulvaneys (some more pipsqueak than the others, and not including the countless number of animals on their farm, which to them are practically family) have their own unique emotional attachment with each other. They do things as one single entity, but also differently; they are provided their own space and free will to certain limits. Call it family. Finding a platform amongst the rising sense of chaos, a war looming, the fear of falling apart. When Ranger, the youngest, our narrator, hears his mom's tale about providence, when she was saved by God one snowy night, he felt as if his mother was clutching his heart, keeping it from escaping his chest. These are caring people each in their own ways.
These God-fearing people had a child's inquisitiveness, and many of them too sensitive to the real world that the outside community began to see them as weak, in need of putting out of their misery (once they succumbed to it) just like an injured and unrecoverable animal. The other town folk, after Marianne is raped by one of her own classmates, see a need to relieve them of their pain, ignore them, cast them out into the wilderness that was not there. And maybe they too prophesied a similar sensitivity and couldn't bare to see them suffer anymore. The reader doesn't know. The reader is only aware of the events and Corrine's (mostly) fevered attempts at patching together the family--an obvious parallel to Joyce Carol Oates herself. And this is one among many problems that progressively worsen after the big reveal.
After the Mulvaney clan has been decimated and the secret is out, and although the father acts realistically, it's still cold, and unnatural, and unwarranted for his character and back story (we're merely presented with facts ranging from that he's a tough, hard working Republican, to that he supports the war effort). Once the family is dispersed things become directionless. The first 200 pages didn't build a showcase of individual isolation, so when that isolation eventually comes rolling by, we couldn't care less.
I wanted more emotional investment. Corrine, or the mother's story about being saved by angels, that once touched Ranger's heart, was a great escape, and something I could've used more of to warrant Part II of the book.
The second major problem I had with this book is that it becomes too cutesy it begins to drown in the character's own stoic charm. There are too many exclamation marks. Characters are always on the brink of unrivaled giddy. My stomach churns. What was endearing at first makes way for the melodramatic. Italics run rampant. Internal dialogue, those long passages that profess to reveal everything to the reader, needed to be caged and leashed. (It's my own personal judgement, but exclamations only work this obtusely for sarcasm and actual screaming, not a character's intrinsic lack of depth.)
This all doesn't come easily, though. I wanted to like this book, but no kind of magic could bestow this kind of lackluster development into my continuing attention. Oats is not only a prolific writer, but sometimes even a great one. Various sections of We Were the Mulvaneys revealed her true greatness, but nowhere near the breadth of the book.
"We're not like that," Corrine says to her husband when she finds out that he beat up the boy that raped his daughter.
He responds by saying, "Maybe we are."
And thus, we are supposed to believe the next 250 pages that follow, the idea that perfection is only perfect because it has been left alone, spared from the real world, their children growing up in a chaotic environment like all children have to. All of this must be acquired and processed within just a few lines of dialogue.
Good luck taking that adventure yourself when the writer isn't even there to tell you north from south.
There was potential, but each of them seemed so sketchily drawn, as if they were mere shadows of fully developed characters. They were all so one-dimensional, so static. Who changed? Mike Mulvaney Sr. did so for the worse, abruptly, with no real depth or exploration. Marianne seemed to, but it happened "off camera"--we see her at one point so unable to reach out that she can't even look in the face of someone who might trust, respect, love her (understandable, perhaps, given her past)...and then she shows up married with children. It just seemed like issues of character were secondary, never to be fully explored.
I suppose it could be argued that such weak character development is a device to illustrate the obliteration of family bonds. Since the book is narrated by the youngest Mulvaney brother, maybe it's just an indication that the characters never seemed fully real to him, either. I can almost talk myself into accepting that, but it was the same even when the scene was being set, when the family was still whole and "perfect," when maybe they should have understood each other better. Unless, of course, that "perfection" was just a mirage, which, given how easily the whole thing fell apart once adversity entered their lives, is entirely possible.
Then comes the ending, an overly saccharine epilogue where, essentially, everybody gets back together and lives happily ever after. It seemed like things were different, but it was hard to tell what, or why. Just time spent apart, I guess.
Maybe that's really what bothers me--whatever deep places the characters have to go to in order to achieve whatever it is that happens at the end, they go there outside the scope of the narration. We as readers don't go there with them, and therefore the whole thing seems so neat and tidy (and unbelievable) when finally it comes around. That's the limitation of a first-person narrator, no matter how omniscient he may seem to be throughout. For a character-driven story as this should have been, it's a curious choice for Oates to have made.
Outside of all that, this was a decent read. I really liked the visual imagery/symbolism, such as the abundance of worn-out clocks, and the two pieces of artwork favored by Patrick and Marianne Mulvaney, respectively. Despite my feelings about the characters, I found the book hard to put down for any length of time. I enjoyed it, but I do think that it could have been so much better than it ultimately was.
I have a few problems with the book. The author is female and the narrator is male, however, that narrator was written like a female would talk. I didn’t feel like the narrator sounded real. It sounded like a little sister, instead of the youngest male in the family.
Second, because the story is told from the youngest son’s point of view, the book didn’t delve into his life like it did his brothers, sister and parents. I ended up liking the narrator, but not really feeling like I knew him.
Everything else was wonderful. I especially liked the setting of High Point Farm and the small town of Mt. Ephraim. The brothers and sister and parents trials and tribulations were written like they would happen in real life, without much semblance of order or reason. The "happy" ending was bittersweet however.
In writing, you can see why you can never go home again, yet in real life, since you don’t see the whole panarama of your life laid out like quilt, you sometime think you can go home again.
On a scale of 1 to 10, a 9-1/2.