Review: ‘We Were the Mulvaneys’

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We Were the Mulvaneys

by Joyce Carol Oates

  • Date finished: May 14
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1997
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Spring 2013
  • Grade: A
  • Thoughts upon reading:

I remember buying We Were the Mulvaneys at one of my library’s book sales because of all the Joyce Carol Oates novels I knew, this was the most familiar. This was the most familiar because it was the one title I saw the most when I worked at Half-Price Books.

That could mean a lot of things, one of which is that people read We Were the Mulvaneys in droves and decided it wasn’t worth keeping. Was it bad? I didn’t know but it had been sitting on my shelf for quite awhile and I figured that, upon shortchanging myself with my Spring 2013 Reading List, I’d give it a whirl.

Man, am I glad I did. We Were the Mulvaneys tells the story of the Mulvaney family: mom, dad and four kids on a prosperous, bustling farm in upstate New York. It’s the 1970’s. One family member later says the group had a “special gift for happiness.”

Then, something terrible happens and nothing is ever the same. The Mulvaneys break apart, scatter, crash and burn … and yet, in the end, this is a story about happiness, and what it takes for a family to really be happy with one another. To not only love each other, but like each other, respect one another and be able to live together as a family – whatever that means.

Regardless of where you come from, we all have a family, and so it’s easy to relate to a book like We Were the Mulvaneys. Sure, nothing like what happens in the book has ever happened to my family, but it could. Anything can happen. However, it’s inspirational to see what that familial bond is capable of and how, even after heartbreak and misery, happiness is possible.

Two side notes: the bulk of this story takes place in the 1970’s, a time when both my parents were teenagers. And so while I couldn’t relate, it was nice to peek into what my mom and dad’s lives could have been like when they came of age without any stupid, stereotypical ’70’s references. Also, I cried only once during the book, when a pet cat was close to dying. Typical.

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