Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"We Were the Mulvaneys" by Joyce Carol Oates

Summary: The Mulvaneys are a well-to-do farm family in a rural community in New York.  The family--husband and wife Michael and Corrine and their four children: Mike Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd--are popular and respected in town.  But on Valentine's Day, 1976, all that is changed when Marianne is raped after a school dance.  Suddenly the family is reeling and torn apart from shame, guilt, and anger; the once-liked family feels scorned and the tight knit clan breaks apart.  We Are the Mulvaneys follows each of the family members as he or she struggles to find acceptance and belonging in the aftermath of tragedy.

Musings: Although I had a disastrous experience with my previous Oates novel, I respected her other writings enough to be willing to give this novel a chance.  I'll admit I was reluctant to begin the book (I read it primarily because I'd read several YA books in a row, and this was the only adult book I had around to switch things up) and nearly stopped part way in, but I did finish--and feel more positively about the novel now that I'm done.

We Were the Mulvaneys is a book that focuses primarily inward on the individual characters and their feelings, thought processes, and past experiences.  The novel is told in the future but spends most of the time alternating between 1976 and earlier years of the family growing up.  In the beginning I found this a bit annoying, as the "tragedy that rips the family apart" (it sounds so cliched I feel the need for quotation marks) is ominously alluded to without the reader directly being informed what had happened.  The reader would be given a glimpse of the truth--only to be taken back to a long chapter about them as kids.  Fortunately the "secret" is revealed soon enough (so I don't feel it's really a spoiler to say in the summary that Marianne is raped), and some of that unnecessary tension goes away.

Much of my problem, particularly in the middle of the novel, came from my absolute hatred of Michael Mulvaney.  He's a weak, selfish, pathetic man who internalizes Marianne's rape as his own personal shame and uses it as an excuse to reject his daughter, and eventually his entire family, business, and life.  I've no problem with villains who are intended as villains, but Michael is portrayed as a sympathetic character.  I personally thought he was the biggest piece of crap I'd ever read about, and I felt only infuriation with the family's, and especially Corrine's, defense of him.  I had a similar difficulty with The Glass Castle, in which I also detested the parents.  When people are self-centered and worthless by their own choice and devices, I don't believe they deserve anyone's pity.

Meanwhile, the completely selfless Marianne is given no support; she too internalizes shame from her rape, and because she is never told is it not her fault, she spends much of her life excusing herself from existence.  Although the brothers are allowed to come to terms with the rape, Marianne herself is not.  I was somewhat bothered by the focus on the way the rape hurt the men. It was done to the woman, and truthfully I could care less if the men's macho protective egos could handle it or not.

I warmed to the novel some by the end, but although I'd certainly recommend this in a heartbeat over The Tattooed Girl, it wasn't a favorite.

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