We Were the Mulvaneys, by Joyce Carol Oates, is a haunting book. I say that because I've finished two novels since this one, but I'm still thinking about the Mulvaneys. It's a tragedy that begins by describing a seemingly ideal family in the 1970s, living in a small town in New York. Michael Mulvaney, Sr. and his wife Corinne are the parents of four really good kids--"Mule" or Mike, Jr., the star quarterback of the local football team, Patrick, the slighter, brooding future valedictorian, Marianne, who manages to be one of the sweetest people on earth and still be a popular cheerleader, and the youngest, Judd, our narrator.
The Mulvaneys live on a farm with lots of livestock and pets. They all do farm chores besides their homework, while their father's time is taken up mostly by his roofing business, which has taken awhile to cultivate. They are comfortably well-off, and everything seems to be going very well for them.
Then, It happens: Marianne, a junior in high school, is raped on prom night. It takes her a couple days to let anyone know, but her doctor can see the evidence of what happened, except that which she has bathed away. Marianne's memory is fogged by the spiked punch at one of the parties, and she finds that she cannot really recall the exact sequence of events, how she came to be alone with a boy named Zachary, who was not her date. She is an emotional mess, and it takes her a long time to return to school. In the meantime, her father reacts in the worst possible way, and since Zachary happens to be a son of the social elite of this small town, Mike Mulvaney's reputation and business suffer. I believe the terms date rape and acquaintance rape were new in the 1980s, so at this time, especially since Marianne was intoxicated, she could not have won a case against the rapist. She didn't try, she certainly did not want to publicly testify.
Eventually, Mike Mulvaney becomes so obsessed with this injustice, and so out of control, that he can no longer bear the sight of his only daughter. Deep down, there are guilt feelings, perhaps feelings of impotence for not being able to protect her, but whatever his exact reason, Marianne is sent away to live with a distant relative of Corinne's. It was hard for me to believe that Corinne would sign off on this, but then, she was in love with her husband and she was a rather careless mother. Marianne is never invited home again, not even for Christmas. Ironically, her father had been disowned by his father, and it hurt him that even his mother and sisters fell in line behind him. Marianne, at least, still has her brothers, and Patrick is especially outraged by the way Marianne is being treated.
The rest of the novel follows each of Corinne and Mike Mulvaney's children as they grow up and launch themselves, while their father's business goes bankrupt and he becomes increasingly abusive toward those around him. Marianne, particularly, leads a hapharzard, or what her mother calls "rag quilt" existence, thanks to getting absolutely no help from anyone. The siblings end up very scattered, and keeping up with each other is difficult during their young adulthood.
Marianne is an interesting character to me because she never feels anger. In fact, she is so well disciplined to thank God for everything, that she is even ashamed of crying so much; it's such an indulgence! She is very, very sad and damaged. Her oldest brother, Mike Jr., manages to run away by joining the Marines, but the rest of them are afflicted. Patrick is angry enough for all of them, and does actually carry out a plan of revenge against his sister's rapist, while Judd, the youngest, must suffer not only the absence of his dear sister, but also the selling off of their farm, the beautiful lavendar farm house, and their much-loved horses. All his childhood memories seem to be erased, even his sister. Judd sees The Fall and gets knocked around by a father he doesn't know anymore.
There are parts of this novel that drag just a bit, but not for long. In the end, the reader is dying to know what becomes of each one of these siblings--especially Marianne.
It's a trip.