This novel is a painful but sympathetic account of the tragedy-struck Mulvaney family who led idyllic lives for nearly two decades in the 1960s and 70s, while living in a well-maintained, century-old farmhouse on twenty acres, near the small town of Mt. Ephraim in upper state New York. The Mulvaney family, Mike Sr. and Corrine and their four children, from oldest to youngest, Mike Jr, Patrick, Marianne, and Judd, was suffused with a great deal of harmony, love, cheerfulness, dependability, energy, etc. They were well respected in the community, even among the movers and shakers, for their industriousness, Mike Sr. owning a roofing company and Corrine running the household and dabbling in antiques. Despite all of these positives there was a certain lack of depth in their lives. There were elements of naïveté, insularity, simplicity, and religiosity about them that left them utterly unprepared to cope with an ugly, painful event visited upon their family when most of the kids were teenagers.
The book is consumed almost entirely with the fallout from a sexual assault suffered by Marianne, as a junior in high school, after the Valentine’s Day prom in 1976, hinted at constantly in the first third of the book where the smoothly functioning, happy family stands in stark contrast with what is coming. Unfortunately, the community’s reaction is one of covert condemnation – blame the victim and, most of all, stop associating with the family. As for the Mulvaney’s, as might be expected, Marianne is totally distraught by what has occurred. On the other hand, Mike Sr., instead of providing the stability that his family needed, embarks on a path of destruction: he neglects his business; invests much time in seeking some sort of revenge; drinks excessively; and creates a constant level of hostility within the family, which is hardly helped when he drives away Marianne. Within a couple of years the entire family has broken up and the farm and business are lost.
What ensues over the next fifteen years and the last two-thirds of the book is sad but not unexpected. Patrick and Marianne are the biggest casualties; without the safe and supportive environment they had known their entire lives they flounder in their endeavors, be it school or menial jobs. Corrine regards their lives as “stitched like a rag quilt.” Mike continues to deteriorate, isolating himself from everyone. Corrine, in her forgetfulness, remains the delusional optimist in the face of every setback. Marianne is the author’s focus, whose mysteriousness intrigues many in her scattered life, but always moves on when anyone draws near. Some of the story is told from the perspective of Judd in 1993, who looks back on the Mulvaneys from his vantage point as a newspaperman.
The book can seem tedious at times, especially in the beginning, with a great deal of excessive descriptions, but eventually the characters take over the book. Overall the book is a heartfelt look at a family that is broken and seemingly cannot be fixed. Perhaps the reader is drawn in by the obvious need for appropriate counseling that is never gotten. An interesting aspect of the Mulvaneys is their love for animals; their dogs, cats, and horses help to sustain them at their lowest points. The last short segment of the book is the odd piece. A family reunion is held by Corrine in 1993 not far from the old family home, where the Mulvaneys arrive well-adjusted with their spouses and children in tow, as though the previous horrible years had not occurred. More likely is that the author is letting us know that there was an inner strength and resolve in the Mulvaneys, perhaps not expected, that eventually rose in each of them in the face of adversity.
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Julie Miller, May 5, 2010 (view all comments by Julie Miller)
I enjoyed reading this lengthy novel for the most part. The characters were well-drawn and there was a real sense of place. Even the family pets came to life in Oates' attention to detail.
What eventually ruined the story for me was the daughter's rape and subsequent banishment to a distant relative. This once tight-knit family's downward spiral became painful to read. It was difficult to understand parents who could turn a blind eye to their daughter's suffering. Worse yet was the daughter's acceptance of her parents' decision and naive belief that it was all for the best.
The reunion at the end couldn't make up for the heartbreaking middle section of the novel. Oates' seemed to say that all can be forgiven with a 4th of July picnic--an all-American ending! It just came off as trite.
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swange, April 8, 2010 (view all comments by swange)
What a wonderful book! I've only read a few "Oprah books". I've read a few Joyce Carol Oates books. I thought I'd had enough of both. I couldn't get enough of this book.I wanted to hang out with the Mulvaneys during their good times and shake them out of their bad times. When an engrossing book collapses at the end it really annoys me- I had no reason to be annoyed at the reunion at the end of this book. It's all good.
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"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"As with much of Oates's work, the prose is sometimes prolix, but the very rush of narrative, in which flashbacks capture the same urgency of tone as the present, gives this moving tale its emotional power." Publishers Weekly
"This is a novel that comes close, very close, to being as rich and as maddeningly jumbled as life itself."
by Library Journal,
"Through vivid imagery of a calm upstate New York landscape that any moment can be transformed by a blinding blizzard into a near-death experience, Oates demonstrates how faith and hope can help us endure."
by New York Times Book Review,
"What keeps us coming back to Oates Country is something stronger and spookier: her uncanny gift of making the page a window, with something on the other side that we'd swear was life itself."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"Just when you think Oates has finally run dry, or is mired in mechanical self-repetition, she stuns you with another example of her essential kinship with the classic American realistic novelists."
A New York Times Notable Book and a former Oprah Book Club® selection
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. The Mulvaneys of High Point Farm in Mt. Ephraim, New York, are a large and fortunate clan, blessed with good looks, abundant charisma, and boundless promise. But over the twenty-five year span of this ambitious novel, the Mulvaneys will slide, almost imperceptibly at first, from the pinnacle of happiness, transformed by the vagaries of fate into a scattered collection of lost and lonely souls. It is the youngest son, Judd, now an adult, who attempts to piece together the fragments of the Mulvaneys' former glory, seeking to uncover and understand the secret violation that occasioned the family's tragic downfall. Each of the Mulvaneys endures some form of exile--physical or spiritual--but in the end they find a way to bridge the chasms that have opened up among them, reuniting in the spirit of love and healing. Profoundly cathartic, Oates' acclaimed novel unfolds as if, in the darkness of the human spirit, she has come upon a source of light at its core. Rarely has a writer made such a startling and inspiring statement about the value of hope and compassion.
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