Liza Miller's Reviews > We Were the Mulvaneys

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
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Oh you guys, where to begin with this one? JCO really brings out the feels on this one, and a lot of them are really unpleasant.

Some of them, especially in the beginning, are wonderful. I fell in love with the Mulvaneys early on. They're charming and seemingly perfect, a mix of jokesters (Mike, Jr.), needling nerds (Pinch!) and batty kooks (I wanted Corinne to adopt me the first time I read this). Even Marianne, the devout, kind (and, yes, kind of sanctimonious) daughter, is the kind of girl you'd let sit at your lunch table, at least on days when you weren't wearing a skirt short enough to scandalize her. Oates sets up this loving, slightly quirky, seemingly perfect family but it's clear early on that a Bad Thing is going to happen. She punctuates the first half of the novel with sharp jabs from the night Marianne was raped by a classmate, single italicized sentences that rip tiny holes in the idyllic tapestry of their lives. It becomes harder and harder to read cheery descriptions of Corinne's twee antique shop when you're waiting for it all to catch fire.

If the (really great) reviews of fellow GoodReaders are any indication, the family's reactions to the Bad Thing were extremely polarizing. How could this perfect family fall so far so fast? And how could Marianne not press charges? How could anyone - even her own father - seem to blame her for what happened? But Oates isn't condoning anyone's behavior. She's telling a story, provoking these very uncomfortable but necessary questions in her readers. The Mulvaneys, like many young families, were never actually perfect, but their seemingly boundless happiness projected perfection to the rest of Mt. Ephraim: This is what a Family is supposed to look like. And the weight of that expectation plays a role in how they all react to the Bad Thing.

Happily Ever After usually ends before the Boy and Girl (or whatever permutation you're working with) even have kids, but that idyll - the one Corinne and Michael Mulvaney seemed to have before Marianne's dress was irreparably ripped by a drunken adolescent - is what everybody wants. And when something ruins that - whether it's the terrible actions of a high school boy on Prom night or, say, the systematic betrayal of a husband who cheats and gambles and, worst of all, lies about all of it until there's no way out (hypothetically speaking, obviously) - it can feel like the entire world is ending.

The Bad Thing has the power to break us, and for much of the back half of We Were the Mulvaneys, it seems to have broken every last one of them. There's no solace in pretending it never happened, or in trying to rebuild the same life that was just destroyed. Instead, the best any of us can do when the Bad Thing happens is to pick ourselves up and start over. It's never going to look like the idealized life we lost or the magical life we dreamed about when we were younger, but it also has the power to teach us who we really are beyond the glossy veneer of our old, perfect (but, tbh, probably filtered) family photos.
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Reading Progress

March 29, 2015 – Started Reading
March 29, 2015 – Shelved
March 31, 2015 –
page 250
55.07% ""What you say is always less than what you know... We never tell as much as we know. So we're lying. So almost every statement is a lie, we can't help it." \n Is Mike Mulvaney, Jr scaring the sh*t out of anyone else right now?"
April 4, 2015 – Finished Reading

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