By Joyce Carol Oates
You will not read a novel more enthralling, more moving, more unforgettably illumined by profoundly human truth than this story of the rise, the fall, and the ultimate redemption of an American family. That family is the Mulvaneys, seemingly blessed by everything that makes life sweet—a successful, hard-working father, a loving mother, three fine sons, and a sweet and pretty daughter. Their residence is picture-perfect High Point farm, long since converted from actual farming to the cultivation of the joys of country living for adults and children alike. Their position in the community of Mt. Ephraim, New York, seems secure.
Yet something happens on Valentine’s Day, 1976—an incident involving sixteen-year-old Marianne that is hushed up in the town and never spoken of in the Mulvaney home—that causes the bottom to fall out of their world. The impact of this event reverberates throughout the novel as Mike Sr. fights in both barrooms and courtrooms to restore his family’s honor, his sons risk everything to right the wrong done to their beloved sister, while Marianne herself spends years drifting before she finds genuine love and fulfillment with a decent man, satisfying work, and a family of her own.
It is the youngest son, Judd, now a newspaperman, who sets himself the task of documenting his family’s history—to recall its luminous moments and what seemed a special gift for happiness. The many secrets they kept from each other threatened to destroy them, but ultimately We Were the Mulvaneys celebrates the human miracle that allowed this family to bridge the chasms that had opened up between them, to reunite in the spirit of love and healing.
Profoundly cathartic, this extraordinary novel unfolds as if Oates, in plumbing the darkness of the human spirit, has come upon a source of light at its core. Rarely has even such an acclaimed writer made such a startling and inspiring statement about the value of hope and compassion.
No one would be able to name what had happened, not even Marianne Mulvaney to whom it had happened.
Corinne Mulvaney, the mother, should have detected. Or suspected. She who boasted she was capable of reading her husband’s and children’s faces with the patience, shrewdness and devotion of a Sanskrit scholar pondering ancient texts.
Yet, somehow, she had not. Not initially. She’d been confused (never would she believe: deceived) by her daughter’s behavior. Marianne’s sweetness, innocence. Sincerity.
The call came unexpectedly Sunday midafternoon. Fortunately Corinne was home to answer, in the antique barn, trying to restore to some semblance of its original sporty glamor a hickory armchair of “natural” tree limbs (Delaware Valley, ca. 1890-1900) she’d bought for thirty-five dollars at an estate auction—the chair was so battered, she could have cried.How people misuse beautiful things! was Corinne’s frequent lament. The antique barn was crowded with such things, most of them awaiting restoration, or some measure of simple attention. Corinne felt she’d rescued them but hadn’t a clear sense of what to do with them—it seemed wrong, just to put a price tag on them and sell them again. But she wasn’t a practical businesswoman, she hadn’t any method (so Michael Sr. chided her, relentlessly) and it was easy to let things slide. In the winter months, the barn was terribly cold: she couldn’t expect customers, when she could barely work out here, herself. Her breath steamed thinly from her nostrils, like slow-expelled thoughts. Her fingers stiffened and grew clumsy. The three space heaters Michael had installed for her quivered and hummed with effort, brightly red-coiled, determined to warm space that could not, perhaps, be warmed. On a bright winter day, cold sun glaring through the cobwebbed, uninsulated windows, the interior of the antique barn was like the vast universe stretching on, on and on where you didn’t want to follow, nor even think of; except God was at the center, somehow, a great undying sun—wasn’t He?
These were Corinne’s alone-thoughts.Thoughts she was only susceptible to when alone.
So the phone rang, and there was Marianne at the other end, sounding perfectly—normal. How many years, how many errands run for children, how many trips to town, to school or their friends’ houses, wherever, when you had four children, when you lived seven miles out in the country. Marianne was saying, “Mom? I’m sorry, but could someone come pick me up?” and Corinne, awkwardly cradling the receiver between chin and shoulder, interrupted in the midst of trying to glue a strip of decayed bark to a leg of the chair, failed to hear anything in the child’s voice that might have indicated distress, or worry. Or controlled hysteria.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged.
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.
from Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
- Oprah’s Book Club Selection, 2001
- International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award, 1998 Longlist
from “A Reader’s Guide to the Recent Novels of Joyce Carol Oates”
Q: What was the germ of the book? Was there a single scene or character or theme that inspired you to write it?
A: Primarily, I wanted to write about family life—the mysterious and seemingly autonomous “life” of the family that is made up of individuals yet seems to transcend individuals; the joys, the sorrows, the continuity of jokes and humor; the shared pain; the conflicted yearning for freedom simultaneous with the yearning for domesticity; always, the unspeakable mystery at the heart of the family. I wanted to write about complex lives as they are interwoven with one another, always defining themselves in terms of one another.
Q: Which one of the Mulvaneys is your favorite character?
A: It’s hard to answer—Marianne, Patrick, Judd and Corinne are all favorites. Emotionally, I identified with Marianne; intellectually, with Patrick and Judd. My earlier sense of Patrick was that he would prove to be more violent, a terrorist, in a sense, obsessed with exacting justice for his family. But, as Patrick evolved, and came into his own, I saw that he was really a very civilized and judicious young man for whom “an eye for an eye” would be far too primitive a mode of justice.
Q: Corinne, the mother of the family, is such a totally real woman—a mother all of us have known and remember from our childhoods. Is she modeled on any particular woman you have known? On your own mother?
A: Corinne is only partly modeled after several mothers of my acquaintance, including my own, Carolina Oates. These women are quintessentially maternal: warm, funny, immensely hard-working, generous, identified with their families to the suppression of their own personalities for long periods of their lives. I recall fondly how my mother helped me plant fruits and vegetables—epecially a strawberry patch terribly prone to weeds. We lived north of Buffalo on a small farm, much smaller than the Mulvaneys’, and much less affluent. We had pigs for a while, and always chickens and cats. No horses, unfortunately.
Q: Corinne is so close to Marianne. And then she totally rejects her daughter after the rape—why?
A: Corinne does not reject Marianne. She chooses her husband over her daughter out of desperation and must live with that choice. But she never ceases loving, and grieving over, Marianne, the child most like herself.
Q: When the Mulvaneys’ fall comes, it happens so fast. One day they’re riding high and the next they’re in the gutter—the American gutter of violence, homelessness, paranoia, law suits. Was there any way they could have averted their family tragedy?
A: If Michael, Sr. had behaved differently, the Mulvaney tragedy would not have occurred. In the past, laws concerning rape and sexual assault were not as liberal as they are today in most states. Marianne knew that it would have been futile to press charges under the circumstances.
Q: Do you think of this as a feminist novel?
A: The novel is not basically feminist; it has no ideology; it is a story about individuals, not a tract. Marianne exemplifies the way of love, magnanimity and forgiveness; Patrick the way of intellectual analysis. In general terms, the tension is between a belief in Christianity and a belief in Darwinism: the one so spiritual, the other so intransigent in its physicality. In the end, through the experience simply of living, Patrick comes around to a spiritual transformation—the way of the community, living with others instead of in isolation. he overcomes his resentment and anger and falls in love at last, deeply and without calculation. And belatedly, he discovers his “Mulvaney-ness.”
Q: The center section of the book is so dark and yet it ends on a note of hope and resolution. Where did this ending come from? Did you consider concluding on a darker note?
A: This is life, generations following generations. The destructive father is gone, and will be remembered, ironically, with affection. Old wounds are forgotten in the excitement and enthusiasm of the future. To be true to life, a novel must have an ending that is inevitable given the specific personalities of the characters involved. The novelist must not impose an ending upon them. What might have been a tragedy in WE WERE THE MULVANEYS becomes something quite different, yet to my mind this bittersweet ending is inevitable.
Q: What about Marianne? She seemed to be heading for a tragic fate and yet she ends up happy and fulfilled.
A: Marianne, lacking bitterness, is the sort of young woman to inspire affection and love in others. Always, people are drawn to young women like Marianne; for her, it was a matter of accepting herself as not despoiled, a matter of her coming to like herself once again. She was fortunate to find just the right man to appreciate her, shrewd Whit West with his background of treating wounded and abused animals. Whit was canny enough to know how to love her without scaring her off.
Q: Animals play a tremendously important part in the book—in a sense the Mulvaneys communicate and love through their animals. Have animals always been important to you? Did you have some larger message in mind that you wanted to express through animals?
A: I’ve always loved animals, and have lived with them all my life. As a child I had kittens and cats, and tended quite a large brood of Rhode Island reds (chickens). I’ve never before written about the emotional interdependence of human beings and animals, though it has been so much a part of my life (and the lives of many of my friends). I hoped to show, in the novel, the intensely connected parallel lives of people and animals. For Marianne, obviously, Muffin is far more than merely a cat; he’s her deepest connection with her family and her girlhood, almost an aspect of her soul. In families with animals, there is always tragedy: animals age more quickly than we do, and their lives run out before our eyes. How difficult it is to speak of the secret meaning of animals without sounding sentimental . . . Yet it was a risk I was willing to take in order to tell the story of the Mulvaneys.
Q: What about the house and farm? What is their meaning in the book?
A: Of course it’s a profound shock to lose one’s house, one’s farm and identity. And one’s trees . . . the spiritual connectedness between people and trees is quite emotional, too. I’ve always lived in a place with lots of trees. When you lose your trees, you have lost beauty and solace and protection.
Q: Why did you choose Judd, the youngest of the Mulvaneys, to narrate the story? Was it difficult to have him tell so much about the interior lives of characters he did not always understand?
A: Judd imagines but does not invent. He’s the intellectual and moral center of the novel, as it is presented in terms of language. It’s fitting that he’s a newspaper editor and writer. Many people in families feel themselves the repositories of the family narrative—as Judd says, he is assembling a kind of family album, not writing a “confession.”
Q: Is this one of your favorite books?
A: WE WERE THE MULVANEYS is perhaps the novel closest to my heart. I think of it as a valentine to a passing way of American life, and to my own particular child- and girlhood in upstate New York. Everyone in the novel is enormously close to me, including Marianne’s cat, Muffin, who was in fact my own cat. One writes to memorialize, and to bring to life again that which has been lost.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1996, p998
Publisher’s Weekly, August 5, 1996, p430
Booklist, August 1996, p1855
Library Journal, August 1996, p113
Glamour, September 1996, p132
Buffalo News, September 1, 1996, G6
Seattle Times, September 1, 1996, M2
Boston Globe, September 8, 1996, pN27+
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, September 8, 1996, p5
Orlando Sentinel, September 8, 1996
New York Newsday, September 9, 1996, B6
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, p3+
New York Times Book Review, September15, 1996, p11
Sun-Sentinel, Ft. Lauderdale, September 15, 1996, 10F
Dayton Daily News, September 20, 1996
Washington Post, September 22, 1996, pX-04
Chicago Trubune, September 22, 1996, 14, 3
Detroit News & Free Press, September 22, 1996, F6
Salt Lake Tribune, September 22, 1996, D4
Salon Magazine, September 26, 1996
Detroit News & Free Press, September 28, 1996, D28
Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 29, 1996, L-11
Times Union (Albany, NY), September 29, 1996, I11
News & Observer Raleigh, NC, October 13, 1996, G4
Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA, October 13, 1996, J2
Boston Herald, October 20, 1996, p63
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 20, 1996, All
The Record, Northern New Jersey, October 20, 1996, p5
Star-Tribune, Newspaper of the Twin Cities, October 20, 1996, 18F
Tulsa World, October 20, 1996, G4
The Nation, October 28, 1996, p62-65
Playboy, November 1996, p33
Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 10, 1996, F6
San Antonio Express-News, November 24, 1996, 5L
Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 8, 1996, F4
Washington Times, December 22, 1996, B7
Rocky Mountain News, January 5, 1997, 27d
Partisan Review, Winter 1997, p37-49