This is another one of the books on my Reading America list that I’ve been putting off. I tried reading Joyce Carol Oates many moons ago when I worked in my local library for the summer and got bored on my lunchbreak. I had heard that Joyce Carol Oates was on a par with Margaret Atwood, so I thought I’d check her out. One chapter in and I was ready to fall asleep, so back on the library shelf she went with nary a backward glance. Until I was stranded in a hotel (with jetlagged parents) with nothing to read, that is, and I found We Were the Mulvaneys on a shelf of books in my room that had clearly been assembled out of the $1 bargain bin at the Strand. Sandwiched between Alec Baldwin’s memoirs and a book about golf, it was the only readable book out of the lot, so I set aside my prejudices and dived in.
Narrated by the now-adult Judd Mulvaney, the youngest of the Mulvaney clan, this is a story of a typical picture book all-American family’s gradual disintegration after a shocking event unexpectedly tears them apart. When the book opens, before the shocking event, it is the 1970’s, and the Mulvaneys are a tight knit, fun loving family, living on a ramshackle, yet prosperous farm on the outskirts of Mt Ephraim, in upstate New York. Michael Sr, the head of the clan, is a successful businessman, an adoring husband and a good father, involved and interested in all of his children’s lives and taking much pride in the world he has built for them. Cut off from his own family after a misunderstanding between him and his own father as a teenager, he is determined to create a solid unit out of his own wife and children, and their world revolves around him. Corinne, his attractive, scatty, intensely religious wife, is the heart of the family; a mother whose love suffuses all of her children with a sense of belonging and acceptance that grounds them all firmly within the walls of the secure family home. The oldest of the clan, Mike Jr, was a High School jock and now works for his father, and next is Patrick, the brainy, sensitive one that everyone can rely on. These two boys are followed by Marianne, the only girl, a popular cheerleader who shares her mother’s profound faith and is universally adored by everyone she meets. Finally there is Judd, the little kid who just wants to fit in, hanging out in his big brother’s bedroom and doing his chores with Dad on the farm. They are a lucky family; financially stable, well liked and respected in their community, and a loving unit that delights in each other’s company. There are, of course, shadows in the distance; Michael’s estrangement from his family, Corinne’s rather loveless upbringing, the discordance between Corinne’s religion and Michael’s lack of it, Michael’s determination to become middle class and fit in with the Country Club set in the town…but none of these are significant enough to damage the warm circle of their family life.
The family’s cheerful, thoroughly ordinary, non eventful existence filled with jokes and laughter and easy camaraderie is ripped apart suddenly, about a third of the way through, when seventeen year old Marianne is ‘taken advantage of’ at the school prom by an older boy, son of a wealthy local businessman. Painfully innocent and piously religious, she was drunk on what she thought was orange juice and cannot quite remember the events of the night, and as such, she refuses to make a formal complaint against the boy; she blames only herself. Marianne loses all of her friends overnight, and a furious Michael Sr beats up the boy and his father, losing him a good deal of respect, and business. Corinne’s friends turn away from her in the street, and the boys find themselves living in a house of silence and pain. No one can deal with what has happened, and the solution they come up with is shocking. Eventually the repercussions will tear the family apart, almost destroying them as individuals and scattering them far from the farmhouse that used to contain their happiness.
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. There was so much detail, so many interwoven stories…and it was all rather unbelievable. While there are precursors to what happens in the pasts of Corinne and Michael, from the way they are described at the beginning, their actions are just not convincing for their characters. I didn’t believe that the people they were described as being would possibly act in that way. Judd is a rather weak narrator; Oates doesn’t seem quite sure what she’s doing with him, and digs into the minds and hearts of other characters in a way Judd could not possibly have done. How could he know in minute and graphic detail, what his brother was feeling or thinking at a particular time, for example?
On top of that, it’s a heavy book, with allegorical and Biblical overtones; the setting in Mt Ephraim is, I’m sure, deliberate, and the failures of fathers and betrayals of sons and so on and so forth, as well as the frequent mentions of religion and forgiveness and atonement etc, all gave it a weight that the flimsy story could not carry. It started out very promisingly, but it ran away with itself and became far too complicated and convoluted. The essential themes of the rupturing of the myth of the all American family; the questioning of the appearance of perfection; the ease at which families can be torn apart, by any number of seemingly trivial reasons that trigger a fault line already there, under the surface, are all excellent, and intriguing, and promised a great deal. Ultimately, however, I felt Oates tried to be too clever; to introduce too many strands; to say too much. The trite, twee ending was the final nail in the coffin. To give her due credit, her writing is wonderful, and I stayed with the book regardless of my doubts because her prose is so good, and drew me in despite the weakness of the tale she was spinning. As such, I haven’t been put off trying her again, as other reviews suggest this is not her best work, and I’m sure another one of her books might strike a better chord with me. Has anyone got any recommendations?