Saturday, 5 November 2011

"We Were the Mulvaneys" - a novel by Joyce Carol Oates

Afternoons are for reading in my home.  I immerse myself in books from the Sarasota Library. They are chiefly biographies and histories.

One day last week I found myself to be bookless.  I had downloaded two books to my Tablet, (A new biography of President James Madison, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt).  But I wanted to save these for my (now postponed) trip to Australia.

Not wanting to drive downtown to our Selby Library I stopped into a local second-hand bookstore which deals mostly in paper backs.

There I picked up a book by Joyce Carol Oates.  I’d known her name, but had never read any of her works.  She is a great author, and I now “feel” that everyone else knew about her, but never told me.

The book I bought is “We Were The Mulvaneys”, published in 1996 by Plume Books.

It is set in the (fictional?) town of Mt. Ephraim, New York.  (There is a Mount Ephraim in New Jersey).

The novel is about the Mulvaney family.  They live in an old farm house just outside of town. They have horses, dogs, cats and a canary.  It’s a house which is filled with joy.

Dad, Mike Mulvaney, is a successful businessman who owns a Roofing Contractor firm.

Mum, Corrine, is a faith-filled home-maker.  She dabbles in antiques which she sells, or does not sell from an old barn.

Oldest son, Mike Jr, is a gregarious high school athlete. 

Next came Patrick, who is an A+ high school student. He has a passion for science and is cynical about his mother’s religion, but he attends Church with her without fail.

Then there is the only daughter, Marianne.  Everyone loves Marianne. She is loving, gentle, and beautiful.

The youngest child is Judd.  He is almost an afterthought. His parents announced his birth as the “caboose”. 

Judd is the narrator of this novel.

The Mulvaney family is torn when after Marianne is raped. As a popular Junior at the High School she had gone on a date with a Senior at the High School prom.  Her date is a bit of a nerd. He leaves the after-prom party but Marianne stays. Another Senior, Zach, offers her a ride home, and then rapes her.

Word gets out in the small town.  But it is not the rapist’s family who is shamed.  Rather, the town turns its back on the Mulvaneys.  

The family begins to fall apart.

Dad, feeling shamed and disgraced  by his business colleagues and associates , sends Marianne away to live with a distant cousin.

Mike Jr. leaves home and joins the Marines.

Patrick goes to Cornell University and never again comes home.

Marianne, having blamed herself for the rape, carves out a new life, with many a twist and turn.

Youngest son Judd stays at home until he and his Dad (now losing his business and descending into alcoholism and bankruptcy) have a bloody fight. Then Judd leaves home – leaving Corrine alone.

The family home is sold at auction and Dad ends up on “skid row” – destitute and desperate.  He eventually dies of cancer.

Joyce Carol Oates is a skilful and clever author.  

As I read this book I “became”  in turn Dad, Mum, Mike Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd.
There is a bit of me in each of these characters.  Or perhaps there is a bit of each of these characters in me.

The huge strength of the book is in the way in which it so brilliantly portrays “family dynamics”, especially after a family has encountered violence. (The rape of Marianne is primarily an act of violence).

The book is a bit weaker when it speaks of an eventual family reunion (sans Dad), but even this coda reduced me to tears.

I hope that you will read this “classic” novel by Joyce Carol Oates.

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