In her latest novel, We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates writes with piercing clarity and a deep sympathy of the dissolution of an American family - and an American way of life. The Mulvaneys - parents Mike and Corinne, children Mikey Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd - seemed to lead an almost charmed life on their rambling farm outside a small town in upstate New York (familiar Oates territory), Mike owned a successful roofing company; Corinne kept the semi-chaotic household bustling through sheer force of her good humor (and devout Christianity); animals - horses, cats, and dogs - thrived alongside the kids, although none was immune to the occasional scrape.
And then on Valentine's Day in 1976, a high school senior raped the Mulvaneys' beautiful, kind and sweet-natured daughter Marianne, and the bottom fell out of their world. Oates deftly, heartbreakingly traces the impact of the rape on each member of this family, exposing how swiftly and irrevocably good can be dragged down and corrupted into evil. The once-popular Marianne becomes a kind of pariah, abandoned by her friends and pushed away by her parents. Her father, overwhelmed by grief and anger, lets the business slide, alienates former friends, and devotes himself to alcohol and law suits. Mikey Jr. distances himself from the family and his former life by joining the Marines. Patrick, the family egghead, at first retreats into his coldly rational fascination with Darwin and the theory of evolution, but once he's at Cornell he becomes obsessed with a scheme to avenge Marianne.
As in previous works, Oates here covers many years and retraces the complicated, twisting paths that bring her characters to their present plight. But We Were the Mulvaneys departs from earlier works in the brilliance and vividness with which it evokes the tensions and pleasures of family life and family relationships. The Mulvaneys manage to be both "every family" and minutely realized individuals with their own quirky obsessions and personal tragedies. The book is also packed with the images and ideas of the decades it covers - the music, products, politics, social norms, and mores of the late 1950s through the early 1990s. This large, sharply etched, immensely readable book is an examination of the American dream, and of the harsh but also beautiful realities that have transformed that dream over the past four decades.
We Were the Mulvaneys is at once a richly textured novel of family life and love (including the abiding love of animals) and a profound discourse on the themes of free will, evolution, gender, class, spirituality, forgiveness and the nature and purpose of guilt. A master of her craft, Oates weaves a seamless web in which ideas blend perfectly with plot.