WE WERE THE MULVANEYS

This wrenching saga, set in the fictional upstate New York town of Mount Ephraim, is one of the protean Oates's most skillful dramatizations of family unhappiness: A big, involving novel on a par with such successes as Them (1969), Bellefleur (1980), and What I Lived For (1994). The story, from the 1950s through the 1980s, tells of roofing contractor Mike Mulvaney, his beautiful and tenderhearted wife Corinne, and their four children: "High school celebrity" and football hero Mike Jr., intellectually gifted Patrick, sweet and simple Marianne, and troubled Judd, the youngest, who narrates, mixing "conjecture" with remembered facts as he recounts both his immediate family's shared experiences and the earlier lives of their parents. The resulting panorama offers both a brilliantly detailed and varied picture of family life and a succession of dramatic set pieces, the majority of which are ingeniously related to "the events of 1976 when everything came apart for us." In that year, inexperienced Marianne either was raped or had consensual sex with a high-school boy she hardly knew—Oates keeps both possibilities teasingly in play—and in the aftermath of her disgrace, Mike Sr. became a helpless belligerent drunk, Patrick subverted his formidable powers of concentration to fantasies of "executing justice," and the once-proud Mulvaneys began their long descent into financial ruin, estrangement, and death. Their harrowing story is leavened by Oates's matchless grasp of middle-class culture, and by a number of superbly orchestrated extended scenes and flashbacks. These are people we recognize, and she makes us care deeply about them. Just when you think Oates has finally run dry, or is mired in mechanical self-repetition, she stuns you with another example of her essential kinship with the classic American realistic novelists. Dreiser would have understood and approved the passion and power of We Were the Mulvaneys.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-525-94223-8

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1996

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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