We Were The Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates


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?


  1. I’ve read quite a few novels (and short stories) by Joyce Carol Oates and this wasn’t my favourite. Try The Tattooed Girl or Rape: A Love Story or Blonde (but only if you love HUGE books and Marilyn Monroe!) Her prose is beautiful but I find I need the sweetest of palate cleansers after I finish reading one of her books; she seems to suck the colour out of the world so everything afterwards is grey and bleak. Yet I keep going back, so she’s obviously doing something right…

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh gosh Claire, they all sound a bit full on!! I’m not sure Blonde would be my thing but I will look up the others, thank you for the recommendations! Perhaps the short stories might be more manageable as well, actually. Yes you are right – bleak is the word. I felt a bit dirty while reading this. But her writing is compelling, somehow!

  2. I read The Grave Digger’s Daughter on a sunny Spanish holiday. I read it very quickly as I found it quite harrowing. It left me feeling, as The Rev’d Beeb says about Lucy Honeychurch and Beethoven ‘a little peevish.’

    1. bookssnob says:

      The Grave Digger’s Daughter on a holiday?! I would have made a wide berth of that for a beach read – I’m not surprised you didn’t feel particularly happy afterwards!

  3. Kathy says:

    I read The Mulvaneys last year and, like you, was not especially impressed with it. I don’t have any other Oates recommendations for you, as that was my first one, but she’s gotta have something good out there!

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one, Kathy – it was rather underwhelming, wasn’t it? Out of the many novels she’s published there must be at least one corker – I just have to find it without having to wade through the duds first!

  4. Deb says:

    I like her non-fiction much more than her fiction. I would recommend a collection of her book reviews or essays. I find her fiction “over-written,” although, based on her frequently she publishes new works, I don’t think she has time to do a great deal of editing. Perhaps that’s the problem.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks for that recommendation, Deb – I will look into it. I love books of essays. ‘Over written’ is exactly what this book was – it felt over thought and lacking in heart. Like she was trying to impress rather than entertain.

  5. heather says:

    I read Solstice and I don’t recommend it. Tried to give Do With Me What You Will a go and gave up. I just don’t think I’m a Joyce Carol Oates kind of girl. Funnily enough, two married novelist neighbors of mine have said they were brought together by their mutual dislike of JCO. 🙂

    1. bookssnob says:

      Well Heather, at least you gave her a good go – more than most people would! Not everyone is going to be your cup of tea. I suspect I may turn out to not be a Joyce Carol Oates kind of girl either. 😉 I love that story about your neighbours! They must have had very strong feelings about JCO to be so drawn together by their hatred!

  6. RJR says:

    Her Gothick family saga “Bellefleur” is fantastic, intense and quite insane.

    1. bookssnob says:

      A gothic family saga?! That sounds much more up my street, thank you!

      1. RJR says:

        She wrote a few novels in a Gothic series. (Not a series in terms of characters but in terms of style.) Bellefleur is the family saga, The Mysteries of Winterthurn is the mystery/crime book, and A Bloodsmoor Romance is a romance about the fates of four sisters. There’s also My Heart Laid Bare, but I found that a bit disappointingly normal. And the fifth one, about rabies, apparently languishes unpublished in a university archive somewhere, a very Gothick thing for a novel to do. But those first three are truly fantastic, and I think my favourite reading discoveries in 2010. They reminded me of the chunky and ebullient paperback romances I used to find at my grandparents’ house when I was a kid, but with added brain.

      2. bookssnob says:

        Well these all sound very interesting. I didn’t realise she had written so many novels – quite the factory!

  7. nancy says:

    I haven’t read too much by her and I haven’t read this one. I’ve decided that she is not for me. My overwhelming feeling upon reading one of her books is, “and so?” I even went to a reading that she did way back in the day and she still fizzles for me. When I want modern stories about families I turn to Anne Taylor.

    1. nancy says:

      I mean Anne Tyler. Sheesh. Although Anne Taylor has some lovely outfits.

      1. bookssnob says:

        Nancy I love that – ‘and so?’ – very true. At least you’ve tried, and you can say from experience you don’t like her. Fair enough! I LOVE Anne Tyler (and Anne Taylor!) and must read more of her books actually. She writes with such truth and such heart. I have loved everything of hers I have read.

  8. Thank you. I thought there was something wrong with me. While Oates does write beautifully, I, too, found this book oppressive. It was as if I was sitting in 100% humidity with no breeze, no relief, not even a cloud in the sky. I just wanted it to end.

    We read this for our book group quite a few years ago. I will say that we had a good discussion. Books like this seem to bring discussion forth, so, I guess that is a good thing, isn’t it? I felt so empathetic for Marianne – not only for her being abused, but, for how her family treated her and how her father’s actions brought upon them more consequences than one could imagine.

    I never opted to read Joyce Carol Oates after We Were the Mulvaneys. I blame Oprah! ha!

    1. bookssnob says:

      There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you, Penny! Oppressive is a perfect word to describe it.

      Yes – I can imagine this would be a great book to discuss. At certain points I just wanted to say to someone – ‘can you BELIEVE this?’ – and there was no one to talk about it with, more’s the pity! I felt empathetic for Marianne too, but I was also furious at her for being so passive – it all just made me cross really and I wanted to wade in and sort them all out!

      Oprah books are invariably a bit disappointing I find. I avoid the sticker where I can!

  9. verity says:

    I recently read Expensive People (as it is a VMC): http://veritysviragoventure.blogspot.com/2011/03/expensive-people-oates.html
    I found it absorbing and gripping but pretty bleak. I would definitely perservere with her; I wish I could remember if she had any more VMCs…

    1. bookssnob says:

      Nice review! I must have missed that. All of her books appear to be fairly bleak…I will perhaps try another at some point but if that doesn’t agree with me then I’m moving on – there are too many other authors out there!

      1. verity says:

        Solstice and A garden of earthly delights are also VMCs; I will try to get to them sooner rather than later to find out if they are bleak too…

  10. JoAnn says:

    Oates writing is wonderful, but We Were the Mulvaneys was tough going. I love her short stories, but they are often just as brutal. Her novel, The Falls, was memorable and very well done on audio and I was recently riveted by an excerpt of A Widow’s Story: A Memoir in the New Yorker magazine. Several other of her other novels have been largely forgotten. I do plan to read Them one day.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I don’t know if I can handle the melancholy of it all. Relentlessly depressing books are not fun to read, regardless of how well written they are! I read a bit of the Widow’s Story in a bookshop a couple of weeks ago and I liked it so perhaps her non fiction might be more my thing!

  11. Joyce (Nickelini) says:

    I just finished We Were the Mulvaney’s yesterday, and I pretty much agree with all your observations. It was a compelling read and I enjoyed it at the time, but I don’t think it’s one that’s going to stay with me (not in a good way). So many things about the family were too cliche!

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m sorry you had a bad experience with this too – cliche indeed! And no real heart to it, I thought.

  12. Ellen Rhudy says:

    This is gonna sound bad – but I’m so relieved that you didn’t enjoy this. I tried to read Oates back in high school, went through a lot of her short stories and I think a novel or two, but I find her writing…I don’t know, dull, hard to believe. Stylistically there are some things that are good about it, but the style remains the same in every piece of writing (SO over-the-top) and she’s always dealing with a certain brand of person or theme, and given the amount of writing she’s published I can’t help viewing her as a sort of factory churning out “literary” novels as fast as she can. If you do give her another try I’ll be curious to hear what you think…or you can just move on to another author you might like more! (I can’t help it, I have such awful memories of her stories.)

    1. bookssnob says:

      Would you have thought less of me if I had, Ellen?! Ha! I always feel secretly relieved when someone else hates a book I did too – it makes me feel like I’m in good company, at least 🙂

      A factory of literary novels is a very good description – there is no real heart to her writing that I could find. I will give her one more bash I think but that’s her last chance! I’ll let you know how I get on – it won’t be any time soon though, too many other books to read first!

  13. Danielle says:

    I’ve only skimmed your post as I have this on my list of books to read this year and don’t want to know too many details. I’ve not read much of her work, but she is certainly dark and the stories are often unsettling. It seems better to take her in small doses. You might just try some of her short stories or essays if you really want to give her another go–but without investing too much time. Sometimes it’s a good thing to know when an author is just not the one for you (especially when you have given her a fair chance) and move on to the next. I tend to stick well within my own comfort zone, so I applaud you for trying new authors.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I might try some short stories Danielle – but as you say, sometimes someone just doesn’t work for you and it’s ok to move on to someone else! Thank you – this Reading America challenge is really stretching my comfort zone but I’ve found some great new authors as well as some ones I don’t enjoy so it’s been so worth it!

  14. Carolyn says:

    I read this a few years ago when I was very bored one summer in a small town with very few books… I don’t remember hating it, but I didn’t think it was the greatest either. I’ve also read Zombie by her (not on purpose, I just started and couldn’t stop somehow), about a serial killer (based on Jeffrey Dahmer apparently) who keeps a diary. DO NOT READ IT. It is so very disturbing. Perhaps somewhat insightful about this guy who’s idea of love is to create a living zombie who will do exactly what he wants, but really really creepy. I can’t say that I’m ever planning to read more of her books.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hmmm…I don’t think I will be reading Zombie then – it sounds awful!! I think JCO is definitely a certain taste. I’m willing to try one more and then if I don’t like that I will be satisfied that I’ve given her a fair go. 🙂

  15. bclark9216@sbcglobal.net says:

    Terribly depressing–but I should have known since it was an Oprah reccommend!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Ha! Yes, that should have been my warning sign!

  16. Mimi23 says:

    J’ai découvert Joyce Carol Oates avec “Les Chutes” (Prix Fémina Etranger en France) qui m’a moyennement plu.
    Mon vrai coup de coeur a été ce livre “Nous étions les Mulvaney”. Puis, j’ai enchaîné avec “Mère disparue”, “Je vous emmène”, “Blonde”, “Fille blanche fille noire” et son dernier “Petite soeur, mon amour”. Par contre, je n’ai pas aimé “Bellefleur” et ne lirai donc pas la suite qui vient de sortir “La légende de Bloodsmor”.
    C’est vraiment une grande dame des lettres américaines et nous avons la chance que ce soit un écrivain très prolixe.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Bonjour! Mon francais n’est pas tres bien mais je vais essayer de mon mieux…je suis tres heureuse que vous aimez Joyce Carol Oates…je sais que ses autres livres sont tres diverses et un jour je lirai plus…peut-etre les ‘gothic’ histoires.

  17. Pam says:

    Try “Black Water” – a fictionalized short novel of the Chappaquidick (sp?) scandal (Ted Kennedy) written from the point of view of the dead girl. Bleak, yes, but interesting. I like her shorter fiction better – try the short stories.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Pam – I will most certainly give those a try!

  18. I’m off to Book Club today & after reading ‘We were the Mulvaneys’ as this months choice, I looked up an internet search which was how I found this blog… Last month I read a rich dense tale (a novella written by David Malouf called ‘An Imaginary Life ‘) so reading this was like a visual art exercise in trying to create something of depth & interest when only being given a paintbrush, canvas & a tin of beige… I read the whole book, but the characters seemed like just superficial characters, the wacky mom, the saint, the angry man, the smart nerd, the jock, the storyteller… the story had meat but the characters didn’t partake of the meal… it was great to read your & other readers thoughts, someone had written they heard that Margaret Atwood had similarities with Oates (MA is one of my fave authors) I don’t see it with ‘words’ or story telling, but something about the ‘pace’ could make the reference seem like they had a ‘similarity’? OK, loved stopping by, hope I didn’t upset any fans of Oates, after all it’d be a boring world if we all liked the same books 🙂

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hello and welcome! Thank you for your thoughts…it’s been so long since I read this now but it is interesting how many people struggled with this book. It’s not an easy one to enjoy and the characters are certainly not particularly well fleshed out. It’s certainly put me off persevering with her…I think Margaret Atwood beats her by miles!

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