4 reviews

We Were the Mulvaneys (Oprah's Book Club)
by Joyce Carol Oates

Published: 1997-09
Paperback : 454 pages
6 members reading this now
19 clubs reading this now
14 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 3 of 4 members
An Oprah Book Club® selection

A New York Times Notable Book

The Mulvaneys are blessed by all that makes life sweet. But something happens on Valentine’s Day, 1976—an incident that is hushed up in the town and never spoken of in the Mulvaney home—that rends the fabric of their family ...
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An Oprah Book Club® selection

A New York Times Notable Book

The Mulvaneys are blessed by all that makes life sweet. But something happens on Valentine’s Day, 1976—an incident that is hushed up in the town and never spoken of in the Mulvaney home—that rends the fabric of their family life...with tragic consequences. Years later, the youngest son attempts to piece together the fragments of the Mulvaneys’ former glory, seeking to uncover and understand the secret violation that brought about the family’s tragic downfall.

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. Moving away from the dark tone of her more recent masterpieces, Joyce Carol Oates turns the tale of a family struggling to cope with its fall from grace into a deeply moving and unforgettable account of the vigor of hope and the power of love to prevail over suffering.

“It’s the novel closest to my heart....I’m deeply moved that Oprah Winfrey has selected this novel for Oprah’s Book Club, a family novel presented to Oprah’s vast American family.”—Joyce Carol Oates

Editorial Review

Oprah Book Club® Selection, January 2001: A happy family, the Mulvaneys. After decades of marriage, Mom and Dad are still in love--and the proud parents of a brood of youngsters that includes a star athlete, a class valedictorian, and a popular cheerleader. Home is an idyllic place called High Point Farm. And the bonds of attachment within this all-American clan do seem both deep and unconditional: "Mom paused again, drawing in her breath sharply, her eyes suffused with a special lustre, gazing upon her family one by one, with what crazy unbounded love she gazed upon us, and at such a moment my heart would contract as if this woman who was my mother had slipped her fingers inside my rib cage to contain it, as you might hold a wild, thrashing bird to comfort it."

But as we all know, Eden can't last forever. And in the hands of Joyce Carol Oates, who's chronicled just about every variety of familial dysfunction, you know the fall from grace is going to be a doozy. By the time all is said and done, a rape occurs, a daughter is exiled, much alcohol is consumed, and the farm is lost. Even to recount these events in retrospect is a trial for the Mulvaney offspring, one of whom declares: "When I say this is a hard reckoning I mean it's been like squeezing thick drops of blood from my veins." In the hands of a lesser writer, this could be the stuff of a bad television movie. But this is Oates's 26th novel, and by now she knows her material and her craft to perfection. We Were the Mulvaneys is populated with such richly observed and complex characters that we can't help but care about them, even as we wait for disaster to strike them down. --Anita Urquhart


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. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. After the rape, Marianne keeps repeating, "I am as much to blame as he is." Does the narrative back this assertion up in anyway? How much does Oates really reveal about what happened that night?

2. Both parents reject their daughter after the rape. Why? How are their reasons different? Are we meant to condemn both of them for their cruelty to Marianne? Or is their action somehow understandable and forgivable?

3. What role does the farm play in the life of the family? Is Oates making some larger life about the tragedies of the family farm in American society?

4. Why is it Patrick — the scientist, the cold rationalist — who acts to "execute justice" on Marianne's rapist?

5. Animals of at the heart of the Mulvaney family — they not only love their cats, dogs, birds, and horses, they love each other and communicate with each other through their animals. Is this a family strength, or does it reveal something skewed in the family emotional dynamic? Have they in a sense glorified their animals by playing up their "cuddly" loving qualities and overlooking their darker instincts? Does their connection with the animals change after Marianne is raped?

6. Darwin and the theory of evolution are discussed at several points in the novel. What point is Oates trying to make with this? How does Darwinian evolution relate to the central incident of the book?

7. Marianne is a Christian and Patrick a rationalist — yet theirs is the bond that remains the most intact after the rape. Are their worldviews more closely related that either of them believes? Or does the rape and its consequences somehow reconcile them not only emotionally but intellectually and spiritually as well?

8. If Marianne's rape happened today instead of the mid-1970's, would the impact on the family and on her life have been different? What if the Mulvaney's lived in a big city instead of in a small town — would the rape have had a different "meaning"?

9. Does the novel's ending in a joyous family reunion came as a shock after so much misery and heartbreak? Is this meant to be a lasting redemption?

10. Does Oates encourage a traditional good-and-evil reading of her novel? Or does she lead is to reexamine these very categories?

Suggested by Members

After the incident, is there any one character who you feel is responsible for what follows? Who? Why?
by mystryrdr (see profile) 11/16/16

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub


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 particualr 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.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Rich, textured story of a family after a brutal incident"by Stephanie L. (see profile) 11/16/16

by Susan R. (see profile) 04/05/15

  "We were the Mulvaney's"by suzanne m. (see profile) 04/24/14

Very poorly written. Too wordy.

  "loves this book"by d p. (see profile) 04/06/11

  "Mulvaneys too long"by JULIE S. (see profile) 08/21/10

500 pages could have easily been said in 200... Too wordy and slow... But good subject

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