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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

We Were the Mulvaneys

We Were the Mulvaneys
by Joyce Carol Oates

This book was a real chore to plow through for me. What could have been a good story was marred by a jumbled plot and unsympathetic characters. In the end I was relieved to finish this and move on to greener pastures.

The plot at its simplest is similar to "The Lovely Bones" or "She's Come Undone"--at least the latter was also and Oprah book--where a girl is raped and the family goes all to pieces in the aftermath. In this case darling cheerleader and chaste Christian Marianne is raped after the prom in 1976. Until that time the Mulvaneys were a respected family. The father Michael Sr. owned a successful roofing company. The mother Corinne was active in the community and churches. The oldest son Michael Sr. was a star athlete and the other son Patrick on his way to becoming valedictorian. This all changes after the rape. In the community the Mulvaneys become pariahs. Michael Sr. becomes a raging alcoholic and loses his business. Michael Jr. joins the Marines. Patrick takes vengeance on his sister's rapist and then disappears to live off the grid. And Marianne is bundled off to live with a cousin before joining a hippie commune. And from there things get worse until they get better.

The first 100 pages or so reads like "The Waltons" written in the style of "The Shipping News" with lots of run-on sentences and fragments. Oates dances around the rape for a long time, well after anyone with an iota of intelligence has figured out what's happened. Especially annoying to me was when Marianne finally tells her mother, instead of getting to the aftermath of this we're hauled back for a flashback 24 years earlier of how Michael and Corinne got together. That's worse than those soap opera cliffhangers that make you wait 3 days (or longer) to find out who shot someone.

The biggest problem with the book then is after the rape. Everything from then out is told in jumbled snippets. Most of the growing and maturing the Mulvaney children do as they scatter from the nest is done outside the book so that we see only glimpses of it. It is essentially like looking at a family photo album where you see a picture of someone at 10 then 16 then 18 then 24 but you don't really know what happened between all those snapshots. Perhaps that was the author's intention, but it takes away from having a cohesive narrative.

It's amazing when you go back and think about it how absent the Mulvaney children are from much of the book. Michael Jr. goes off to the Marines and is almost never heard from again until the end. After Patrick takes his vengeance he too disappears with at least a third of book left. The youngest son (and narrator) Judd was barely present to start with. Marianne gets a couple extended parts towards the end and I wish she didn't because she was so danged precious, as innocent as a small child even at the age of 29; that got on my nerves.

There was no one in the book I was rooting for because I didn't like any of them. Michael Jr. and Judd are exempt because they were all but invisible so there was nothing to like. Patrick was an obnoxious know-it-all, sort of the Lisa Simpson or Stewie Griffin of the Mulvaney clan. I already went into Marianne. Michael Sr. was just a mean drunk (can you ever like someone who exiles his own daughter for being raped) and Corinne was such a spineless, overzealous doormat.

The author had this annoying habit too of overusing some expressions. Especially Marianne "plucking" her hair. It's amazing she had any left by the end. In the epilogue, Corinne mica-shimmering silver hair was referenced three times at least in case you were too dense to figure it out the first time. This is the kind of stuff that annoys me because I'm a very anal reader but I doubt most people would care.

Were there good things about the book? Sure. The descriptions that weren't overused were good. The characters mostly had different, albeit irritating, personalities. So it's got that going for it.

Bottom line is if you're a fan of Oprah books like the two I mentioned earlier then this is probably right up your alley. It's not for me.

That is all.

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