Glenn Sumi's Reviews > We Were the Mulvaneys

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
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really liked it

Okay, I finally GET Joyce Carol Oates

Thanks to Goodreads, I stuck with this novel, one of the prolific Joyce Carol Oates’s best-known and –loved books. (Hey, it’s even Oprah Book Club-approved!) Some people on here said it picked up around the 100-page mark, and – wouldn’t you know it? – they were right.

I’m glad I listened to y’all. It takes a while for the book to find its way. So many character introductions! So many coy digressions! Do we really need to know about all the family nicknames and pets?! But once it gets going, it’s quite gripping, both plot-wise and psychologically.

The past tense in the title hints at the book’s outcome. In some ways it’s about the decline and fall of a once prosperous, well-loved upstate New York family. One event that happens on Valentine’s Day in 1976 affects each of the six Mulvaneys differently, and this book, narrated mostly by the youngest child, Judd, tells the sad, sad story.

I won’t reveal the event, although it’s hinted at early on and it’s easy enough to figure out. But it literally divides the family: from the community (there’s legal action, shunning), and perhaps more tragically, from themselves.

A father denies his favourite child, and the devout mother unquestioningly goes along with it; the other children react by leaving or messing up; careers and ambitions are thwarted; a plan to execute retribution is hatched, further dividing the family; and, as lives are ruined or put on hold and the scars of the past refuse to heal, nobody talks about “it” – the unmentionable “event.”

Oates is working on a large canvas here. There are several biblical and mythical allusions; and much of the book has the inexorable feel of a Greek Tragedy. The idea of Darwinian evolution is also a big theme. And the book can also be read, quite convincingly, as one of those Death of the American Dream novels. When institutions fail people, you're left with the family unit. The book mostly concerns the subtle interworkings of a large family, from the oft-repeated anecdotes that capture a family member’s character to its big secrets.

As one Mulvaney child says about his family late in the book, “It’s like things are in code and the key’s been lost.”

There are lots of passages that ring true if you’re part of a big(gish) family. Consider this:

They say the youngest kid of a family doesn’t remember himself very clearly because he has learned to rely on the memories of others, who are older and thus possess authority. Where his memory conflicts with theirs, it’s discarded as of little worth. What he believes to be his memory is more accurately described as a rag-bin of others’ memories, their overlapping testimonies of things that happened before he was born, mixed in with things that happened after his birth, including him.

Not all the prose is so insightful. This passage, for instance, cries out for tightening and clarity:

There were those times when the telephone rang, and she could not locate a phone amid the clutter. She rushed, she stumbled – for what if it was Michael Sr., her beloved husband of whom she thought, worried obsessively as the mother of an infant if physically parted from the infant thinks and worries obsessively of the infant even when her mind appears to be fully engaged, if not obsessed, with other matters.

I read that last run-on sentence four times before comprehending it. And in the same paragraph (!) we get:

During these mad dashes to the wall phone in the kitchen she hadn’t time to fall but with fantastical grace and dexterity wrenched herself upright in midfall and continued running (dogs whimpering, yapping hysterically in her wake, cats scattering wide-eyed and plume-tailed) before the telephone ceased its querulous ringing – though frequently she was greeted with nothing more than a derisive dial tone, in any case.

Are editors simply too intimidated by JCO’s output to suggest revisions?

The author also has an annoying habit of repeating phrases in italics, supposedly to suggest subconscious thoughts but too often feeling like a lazy shorthand saying, “Look, look, this is significant!”

Still, I don’t think you read Oates for the line-by-line beauty of her prose.

Late in the novel she gets deep inside the head of the book’s ruined, alcoholic patriarch, and it’s a terrifying, sad and completely convincing section, the best in the book. And when one of the most wounded characters finds herself in a sanctuary (view spoiler), the symbolism might seem obvious, but after 400 pages it feels earned.

A lesser writer would have offered up sentimentality, cheesy redemption monologues and copious tears. Oates is after something more complex, more textured, and ultimately more real.

We might think we know who the Mulvaneys are, but they can, like humans everywhere, still surprise us.
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Reading Progress

May 26, 2016 – Started Reading
May 26, 2016 – Shelved
May 26, 2016 –
page 57
12.56%
May 29, 2016 –
page 128
28.19% "A frustratingly stop-and-start narrative, constantly flashing back and telling and not showing... but I'm curious to see if this pays off. It's supposed to be one of JCO's best."
May 29, 2016 –
page 189
41.63% "Okay, I've changed my mind about this book. Some people on here said you have to get past the first 100 pages - and - whaddaya know - they were right! I still think the first 90 pages are rambling and flawed, but Oates demands patience. She builds this book block by block, workmanlike, but it's turning into a fascinating structure."
May 31, 2016 –
page 332
73.13%
June 1, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-29 of 29 (29 new)

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Perry Glenn, I appreciate such deliberative reviews of books that have strobed over each of my yes, no and maybe lists over the years. They are as impressive for your even-handedness as for your frankness regarding a pertinent natural bias or 2 you've developed over your reading life (such bents that none of us can help but bring to the reading table). Thanks.


message 2: by Dianne (new)

Dianne Great, thoughtful review! Have not read Oates yet. Intimidated!


message 3: by Christine (new) - added it

Christine Zibas Yes, great review. The thing that depressed me most is that I wanted for the character to whom the life-altering event happened to find her way. It didn't seem like that to me. There's much good in this book, and I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it, but it's the case (so often with famous authors) that it could have been a better book -- as you point out -- with a little more editing.


Glenn Sumi Perry and Dianne: Thanks! I have wanted to read a full JCO book for years now, and suddenly, within a few weeks, I read two. Next I want to read some of her early stuff. But glad I started. Her reputation was intimidating but it was good to look back and judge this one on its own terms. All my biases intact.


Glenn Sumi Christine: Yes! I completely agree with you. And it's hard to write about that without spoiling things. I DID like how the experience affected said character's experiences with others - ie s/he left before things got too close. Until the person met someone who was used to being around wounded creatures. I also wish Corrine had had more of a reveal at the end. Still: so much to like about this big, ambitious novel!


Jessica Jeffers I read this book so long ago, and I loved it so much that I'm afraid to re-read it for fear that it won't hold up. It was my first JCO and nothing she's written since has been quite as good.


message 7: by Melanie (new)

Melanie Nice review, as is your usual Glenn. I've only read The Falls by JCO and I did enjoy that one. I have The Gravediggers Daughter and The Accursed waiting for me on my shelves. Maybe someday I'll read Mulvaneys. Thanks Glenn :)


message 8: by Noina (new) - added it

Noina Great review ! I read a few short stories and a YA novel by Oates, didn't find what I was looking for yet. This might be it ! Definitely put it on my tbr :)


message 9: by Snotchocheez (new)

Snotchocheez Yay! Great review, Glenn! Thanks for validating my (slowly ebbing away) JCO-of-the-'90s crush, yet deftly touching the reasons why the crush has been a somewhat embarrassing one. Someday I'd love to see you stomach her Zombie, a diary of a thinly disguised Jeffrey Dahmer. Not a great book, and definitely not awash in overwraught


message 10: by Snotchocheez (new)

Snotchocheez Er...overwrought jibber-jabber. It really displays her full range, and another reason why she will always occupy a (sometimes warm, sometimes wretched andyecchy) place in my heart. (I'll let you discover her historical bodice rippers though. Can't find room in my heart to follow her down that primrose path, alas.) Most everything else (except for the execrable Daddy Love I've read of hers has been mostly worth reading.


Jasmine Happy to see the 4 stars, Glenn. And your review is great as usual.


Glenn Sumi Jessica wrote: "I read this book so long ago, and I loved it so much that I'm afraid to re-read it for fear that it won't hold up. It was my first JCO and nothing she's written since has been quite as good."

Thanks, Jessica! Loved your review. I'm going to check out your shelves to see what else you've read of JCO so I can be prepared!! I was hoping to read her Wonderland quartet and perhaps Blonde. And an early volume of her selected stories.


Glenn Sumi @Melanie: Thanks! I was looking at The Falls, too, which would be appropriate since I live 1.5h away from that wonder of the world! And I've got a copy of The Accursed on my shelves, too, so I may try that.


Glenn Sumi Noina wrote: "Great review ! I read a few short stories and a YA novel by Oates, didn't find what I was looking for yet. This might be it ! Definitely put it on my tbr :)"

Thanks, Noina! I've read a few JCO short stories and I've liked them all. And just a few weeks ago I finished one of her "thrillers," Jack Of Spades. It was okay, but it felt like she was going through the motions... I have a feeling that with her you have to be careful what you choose, especially if it's >400 pages.... that's quite an investment.


Glenn Sumi Snotchocheez wrote: "Er...overwrought jibber-jabber. It really displays her full range, and another reason why she will always occupy a (sometimes warm, sometimes wretched andyecchy) place in my heart. (I'll let you di..."

Thanks, Robbie! Really glad I stuck with it. I don't know if I'd get into the bodice-rippers and Gothic stuff. But I have to admit, I AM kind of curious about her fictionalizations - from Monroe to Dahmer and Jon Benet Ramsay. She certainly has range.

And ya gotta admire her work ethic. Reminds me of that anecdote of a story about Harold Bloom. Student phones Bloom's home and asks to speak with the professor. Bloom's wife answers and says, "I'm sorry. Professor Bloom is working on a book right now." Student says, "That's okay, I'll wait."


Glenn Sumi Jasmine wrote: "Happy to see the 4 stars, Glenn. And your review is great as usual."

Thanks, Jasmine! Hope you keep with it. It gets better! And that scene with the father near end is ABSOLUTE GOLD.


message 17: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters Love your review and thoughts Glenn. I think it's hard to peg Joyce Carol Oats. If you read her mystery thrillers ... You might not even know it's the same author.
Her range in writing is like Meryl Streep as an actress..,IMO


message 18: by Snotchocheez (new)

Snotchocheez (I was joking about the bodice-rippers; I couldn't possibly imagine you deriving any kind of pleasure from them, or any of her period-piece historical fiction).

No jole about her work ethic. Holy crap. I think she has over twenty books published since her husband's passing alone. Her output is legendary, and yeah, we'll call her on the phone and wait for her next novel...or, more likely, two or three.


Glenn Sumi Elyse: OMG you're right! JCO is the literary equivalent of Meryl Streep! Brilliant!! (And yeah, I just read one of her thrillers... not sure if I would have thought it was the same writer!)


message 20: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn C. Wonderful review, Glenn.


message 21: by Rae (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rae Meadows Great review, Glenn. Oh, I wish JCO had a good editor who would actually edit! I feel like so much of her work would benefit. The structure of this novel was very instructive for me as I started writing years ago, in some ways, an archetypal novel structure. Glad you liked it.


Glenn Sumi Marilyn wrote: "Wonderful review, Glenn."

Thanks, Marilyn! The book was a bit long, but it was worth it, and JCO's more "literary" books tend to be pretty bulky.


Glenn Sumi Rae wrote: "Great review, Glenn. Oh, I wish JCO had a good editor who would actually edit! I feel like so much of her work would benefit. The structure of this novel was very instructive for me as I started wr..."

Thanks, Rae! Good observation. I actually remember thinking while reading it, "You could really learn from how this book is structured"! That Michael Sr. section really slew me. Hope you worked/are working with a tougher editor ;)


Debbie Great review, Glenn. I read this ages ago and I remember nothing except that I mostly liked it. As I was an editor (though not of fiction, damn it), I'm sure I must have been cringing--now that I read your quotes. God, she soooo needed an editor! Thanks for pulling such interesting quotes (both the good and the bad).

Also just love this thread! Robbie, thanks for the Zombie rec, though I doubt if I could stomach it!


Paula Great review, Glenn. I too read this many years ago, and it's one of the few of hers I've been able to finish - "The Falls" being another one. I thought the Mulvaneys was quite possibly the saddest book I've ever read.


Glenn Sumi Debbie: Thanks! You know something's wrong when you have to read a passage two or three times to understand it. But I'm glad I finally read some JCO - two of her books in less than a month! I'm curious about Zombie, but not sure I want to enter into such a character's mind. I think I'm more curious about Dark Water, written from the POV of the woman who died in the Chappaquiddick incident.


message 27: by Glenn (last edited Jun 02, 2016 11:33AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Glenn Sumi Paula wrote: "Great review, Glenn. I too read this many years ago, and it's one of the few of hers I've been able to finish - "The Falls" being another one. I thought the Mulvaneys was quite possibly the saddest..."

Paula: Thanks! You're so right about it being sad. Glad there was some hope and release at the end. I do want to read The Falls at one point. So much to choose from with this prolific author.


message 28: by Tina (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tina The Mulvaneys are real. The book is not romantic but tragically and happily real.


Glenn Sumi Tina wrote: "The Mulvaneys are real. The book is not romantic but tragically and happily real."

Tina: Thanks for your comment.


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