I set a goal to read one book a month this year and January’s book is FINISHED a few days ahead of schedule! I chose a book from 1997 that was a New York Times Best Seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection for one reason: family. Since my novel is centered around the Fergus family, I have a selection of books that explore the dynamics of families, both good and bad. Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys promised an exploration into just how dysfunction manifest itself from tragedy.
The Mulvaneys, a family of 6, seem to be untouchable socially. They are actively involved into the community, business owners, well-respited and well-liked. The children grow up admirably until “scandal” strikes the only daughter’s adolescence. The incident impacts each member of the family, divides the town, and forever alters the Mulvaney’s position in society and their course for the future. This tragic breakdown of the American family and the making of a social pariah through a woman’s lost reputation (whether it was her choice or not) showcases just how unstable the approval of others can be. Much of the story is told through the eyes of the youngest Mulvaney (Judd) as he tries to make sense of the family’s demise.
- About 80 pages in of the 450 page novel, I almost gave up. WHERE WAS THIS GOING? Luckily, I got some encouragement from Goodreads‘ reviews that told me to push through the first 100 pages. This was an issue for me because, honestly, who gets 100 pages to build momentum to a story? Now I know epics that set up an entirely different world or universe (like Martin or Tolkien) usually get a pass for the verbose introductions and lengthy character descriptions, but good grief. I stuck with it because it’s an acclaimed book, but is there’s really an excuse for the majority of readers to say, “You have to push beyond the first 100 pages?” I think Oates could have accomplished what she needed to in 30-40 pages, long before I lost my patience.
- The characters. Hear me out. I have a love/hate relationship with the characters in this book (see reason 3 in The LOVES section). While I feel Oates excels in character development, I think she missed some great opportunities to take the Mulvaneys to the net level, leaving some things off paper that could have strengthened the story. She spends a great deal of time (ugh) painting the picturesque family and the transformation after tragedy is obvious. However, some interactions and developments are left up to the reader because of the limitations of our narrator because she spends so much time focused on the children that she leaves out the transformations of the parents, who (for me, at least) wind up disappointingly flat. I wanted more out of Mom and Dad Mulvaney and a little less of the kids.
- Sometimes Oates just slapped me in the face with profound one-liners about family. So much so, I had to underline and tab instances that floored me. Here are a few of my favorites:
“In a family, that isn’t spoken is what you listen for. But the noise of a family is to drown it out.” (p. 91)
“Memory blurs, that’s the point. If memory didn’t blue you wouldn’t have the fool’s courage to do things again, again, again that tear you apart.” (p. 106)
“Because nothing between human beings is uncomplicated and there’s no way to speak of human beings without simplifying and misrepresenting them.” (p. 377)
“It was just something that happened,” Judd said, “It’s the way families are, sometimes. A thing goes wrong and no one knows how to fix it and years pass and -no one knows how to fix it.” (pg. 428)
- Dialogue or lack of. The way Oates weaves in and out of scenes with the use of dialogue or the choice to not have dialogue is so deliberate and well done. She doesn’t always shy away from dialogue in the uncomfortable scenes, where the scene could survive without it. When siblings Patrick and Marianne reunite after some time apart (p. 226), Oates weaves in Marianne’s new life and the identity changes of the two through conversation, informing the reader just how the scandal has changes two of the Mulvaney children over time. Within the same scene, we step inside Patrick’s thoughts as he observes his sister and critiques the environment she now finds solace in.
- Portraits of humanity. This seems contradictory to what I described above in The NOPES section. But I think you have to give Oates credit for transforming her characters throughout the novel. While I wasn’t fond of some at the beginning, the tragic outcome of each Mulvaney makes for compelling fiction that is true to life. It felt parallel to people in my own life when I made connections and often wondered how different they would be if X hadn’t happened or if X would have happened differently. Some characters I liked in the beginning were detestable by the end and others I felt nothing for in the beginning became some of my favorites by the novel’s conclusion.