Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, August 20, 2010

"We Were the Mulvaneys" by Joyce Carol Oates

Book club tonight was grand. We've started small, with only three members, but I still enjoyed the heck out of it. For where two or three are gathered together discussing books, there I am in the midst of them.

Lydia's pick for our first meeting was We Were the Mulvaneys. I have been meaning to read this book for years. Oddly enough for a literary amnesiac, I remember exactly when I decided I needed to read it. I was on an airplane, and the girl sitting next to me was reading. I kept surreptitiously sneaking glances at her book and reading what I could (I wonder if she knew? I tried not to be obvious) and was hooked by what I saw at the end of one chapter.

As I read the book this week I tried, but failed, to find exactly what it was that had caught my attention. It could very well have been the narrator's unspoken thought, "Did you know, Marianne: how by breaking the code that day, you broke it forever? For us all?" But I can't be sure if that was it.

Speaking of the narrator, he is supposed to be a 30-year-old man, but I couldn't get past the idea that the story sounds like it is related in a girl's voice. (I wonder if I would have had the same problem if I hadn't known the author is a woman.) There were so many exclamation points! That was the problem. No man--much less one who writes for a newspaper--is going to write so excitedly that he uses at least one exclamation point on every page. It got so that those exclamation points jumped out at me and poked me in the eyes.

And then the narrator was unrealistically omniscient. He knew all kinds of things that there's no way he could have known. He attempts to explain this away, but I remained unconvinced. Oates would have done better to not introduce a narrator at all. Or, this book may be one that would have worked well with multiple narrators taking turns with each chapter.

I was also disappointed that I did not get to hear what Patrick would have said in his valedictorian speech. I'd been curious to know whether he would use his speech as a means of revenge, delivering a scathing polemic, or if he would take the easy way out and keep it harmless and inoffensive. We speculated at book club that he never even wrote a speech.

As for the trouble that each of the Mulvaneys grappled with in their own way, I couldn't help but wonder: did Corinne think that, by her decision and actions, she was saving her marriage? Instead, she destroyed her family, and she never seemed to see that. None of us at book club could relate to the way she and Mike handled the situation, and it was almost as hard to understand Marianne's forgiving acceptance of both the ostracism and the undeserved guilt.

Going into the last section of the book before the epilogue, it seemed that the sheaf of remaining pages was too flimsy to form a satisfactory resolution. I felt just like Margaret Lea reading her first Vida Winter book, fearing that there weren't enough pages remaining for the promised thirteenth tale. I dreaded what I foresaw as a non-resolution like "and so, life sucked, but it went on." So I was pleased to find that I was content with the ending, and the hope and healing represented there.

On the other hand, at the end of the book I merely had a sense of relief that it was over instead of that great feeling of ahhhh, that was good. I didn't hate the book, though I didn't love it, either. But it was worth reading, if only to quench years of curiosity.


Rachel said...

I have started this book twice. I just can't read it. It doesn't grab me. I don't think I will bother trying a third time.

Mary said...

You and Rachel got further than I got. The title turned me off. I got the idea in my head that some family was comparing themselves to a fictional family and so had no interest. Now I really don't have an interest.
Thanks for your thoughts.

She said...

I do the same thing on planes! ;p

I'm sorry this one didn't work out for you though.

Kathy said...

Rachel--it was definitely slow to start (I think it took more than 100 pages to get interested) and if it weren't for the book club deadline combined with my neurotic habit of always finishing a book, I'm not sure I would have stuck with it.

Mary--it's not a family comparing themselves to a fictional family--it's more like a broken family being compared to the way they used to be. But I understand your lack of interest, and I feel no compulsion to change your mind. ;)

Erika--I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who reads over strangers' shoulders. ;) But looking back, I can't help but wonder--where the heck was my own book?? Surely I brought one to read! Maybe I was reading my own book and peeking at my seatmate's. Can't remember.

Becky (Page Turners) said...

What a shame, this is one of my favourites, and one of the reasons that I developed respect for Oprah's Book Club choices. There was something about this book that really got to me, I loved the story and I couldn't put the book down.

Glad the book club was a success

Kristi said...

I'm glad you enjoyed your book club. Sorry you didn't like the book as much as you expected. I haven't heard of this one but I guess I'm not missing much.

Kathy said...

Becky--I always feel like I should apologize when I don't love someone else's favorites! :) Like I'm afraid the one who loves the book will take it personally. So . . . don't take it personally! ;) Have you read anything else by this author?

Kristi--I would agree that you're not missing much, but I think Becky and Oprah would insist otherwise. ;)

Anonymous said...

Great review, I particularly like the way you modified a Bible quote at the beginning!

What is it with authors going crazy with exclamation points? I've read a few books lately like that. How can they expect to be taken seriously?


Kathy said...

Good eye, Chris, I didn't know if anyone would recognize that quote.

I hadn't thought about it that way--that too many exclamation points keep one from taking an author seriously--but that's exactly how I see it, now that I think about it. Of course, I am guilty of exclamation point overuse myself! But then, I'm not an author, so it's OK. ;)

Jessica said...

Ive ust come back to this post because Ive ust realised that this one is part of a set Ive just brought recently. I wont get around to reading it for ages and ages but at least I know its slow to begin with.

Kathy said...

I am curious as to what sort of set this book was in! All books by the same author? What drew you to it?

Anonymous said...

We also read this book for our book club. I find Oates difficult...even though her subject matter is almost always intriguing to me. That said, once I got into the rhythm of the language of Mulvaneys, I really liked it.

Kathy said...

Oh, tell me about your book club! How long have you been meeting and what kinds of books do you usually read for it?

Lisa said...

Well. This post is ages old, so I don't even know if you'll come back and read this. But on the off chance you do - or someone else stumbles upon your blog as I did today - I just had to add to the conversation on this one.

'We Were the Mulvaneys" stands as one of my favorites and JCO is one of my favorite authors. But she does take some getting used to. She doesn't so much narrate a story as open up the minds of the characters and let you see what's on the inside. It can be very off-putting, just as it would be in real life. Sometimes her people think some really strange thoughts - I know I do!

The Mulvaneys as a family were such a reflection of that time period - when people still cared about reputation and appearances. Remember when teenage moms were sent away to have their babies in secret? That was the same mindset that told women that being raped was shameful and something to hide.

Marianne believed she did something to deserve what happened to her and knew that everyone else believed that, too. What kind of daughter would bring such shame on her family? In light of that cultural and societal bias, the way this family handles that event becomes understandable.

For everyone who hesitates to read this one I would say try it! You may love it (and JCO) as much as I do! Even with all her exclamation points!!!

Kathy said...

Lisa, thanks for your insightful and thoughtful comment! It added to my understanding of the book and its characters.