Kirkus Reviews QR Code
WE WERE THE MULVANEYS by Joyce Carol Oates Kirkus Star

WE WERE THE MULVANEYS

By Joyce Carol Oates

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 1996
ISBN: 0-525-94223-8
Publisher: Dutton

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.