Ben Bedard's Reviews > We Were the Mulvaneys

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
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's review
Apr 28, 2012

really liked it
Read from April 28 to May 11, 2012

This is a good family saga from Oates. Living in Buffalo and having traveled around Western New York, the novel has added poignancy. The High Point Farm featured in the novel seems to fit the exact description of several farms in the area. Oates' characterization is brilliant, the movement, wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it. My only annoyance in the book was that Oates doesn't seem to deeply understand some of the issues she tries to portray. This was evident to me in the simplistic way she handled the Darwin Vs. Religion debate. She uses the character of Patrick, a young, scientifically minded man to argue evolution, but fails to understand her own subject. For example, Patrick, while studying science at Cornell, has certain questions which sound suspiciously like popular arguments for intelligent design. At one point, Patrick wonders about how the eye could have evolved, how a thing goes from unperceiving to perceiving, what seems to him an improbable leap. Darwin actually devotes a part of "Origin of Species" to this exact question and carefully and meticulously shows how evolution could have made a functioning eye in a way that surely would have allayed Patrick's doubt--it is truly an impressive part of the book and must have convinced many scientists of the probability of evolution. Patrick would certainly have known this crucial passage. Instead, it becomes a source of mild doubt for Patrick. And the overall portrayal of Patrick's viewpoint is one of arrogance and, even sometimes, cruelty. This is a minor thing, but very frustrating when the Darwin Vs. Religion debate is so alive in the United States--in part because intelligent authors like Oates don't seem to be up to the task of portraying it faithfully. Perhaps it's because she doesn't like to antagonize people, as she has said in an interview. But sometimes literature is very antagonistic. You don't solve problems by watering down the debate. You have to portray it faithfully. Sometimes Oates doesn't seem to me to have as much courage as she needs to be a phenomenal writer. She seems content on just being quite good. And that's what this book is, in the end. Quite good.


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