Friday, September 13, 2013

We Were the Mulvaneys - Joyce Carol Oates

This is the kind of book I try so desperately to like.

 I enjoy Joyce Carol Oates. Her famous short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" is easily in my top three. So I cracked open this copy with complete optimism. The first chapter had me hooked, revealing an interesting character who confesses to being involved in a murder. By half way in turning each page was a chore. I simply wasn't interested.

It isn't that I hate slow things. I love “Moby Dick” if that tells you anything. I just can't stand this kind of book. You know the kind. There's a perfect family in a perfect small town. Everyone is so quirky and likable. Then dark family secrets come out and the perfect town becomes intolerant and mean. The family members are sad and tortured. And wow doesn't that show how America is falling apart and the family isn't family anymore? I think if you were an author born in the mid-20th century you are legally required to write this type of book. I get it, there's not idyllic small town America anymore! 

Even that could be forgiven, but combined with the awful character development I just couldn't stomach it. In true "isn't America horrible and isn't this family a perfect metaphor for it" fashion, nobody in the book is worth liking.

The sole daughter is described as beautiful and popular to an almost comical degree. Yes, she is kind, Christian, blonde, blue eyed. She is a cheerleader but is still nice to the retarded and awkward at school. Someone grab this girl a halo.

Then she is raped at prom. It is a terrible tragedy. A real loving family would support their daughter, but guess what: her parents whisk her away into exile for the next ten years because the father "doesn't want to look at her." Everyone (with the exception of one character) is only mildly off put by this. It’s as if the father’s evil and sexist reaction is an unfortunate event but there's nothing anyone can do. The good Christian mother is fine abandoning her teenage daughter, the eldest son ignores it, and the little brother never resents the decision at all, though he bemoans that he never got to enjoy the family before it fell apart. The daughter patiently waits for her father's forgiveness without a bit of bitterness. Give me a break. Of course, the father dies young and asks for Marianne on his deathbed. Boom all is fixed. Right after that the daughter marries and has a baby after years of struggling with her sexuality. Ms. Oates, I expected a bit more feminism from you. Also, the family does this to their daughter and no one even tells them off?

Except someone, the sole light in the book, does tell them off. The second son Patrick is a cold, science-minded boy who wants to get the hell away from his family as soon as possible, even when they are still the Waltons-lite. I'm pretty sure Oates wants the audience to dislike Patrick, but I rooted for him. Good for you kid! Get the hell away from these idiots! He quits this small town crap and goes to Cornell to fill his dreams. Also, Patrick is the only one who keeps in contact with his sister Marianne, doing his best to be a good brother. He cuts off his parents and refuses to see them because of their treatment of Marianne. He's also the one who tries to get justice for her (albeit in a twisted way). Again, you go kid. 


But the real reason I like Patrick is the biggest grief other characters have with him. He "abandons the family." Unlike other characters, he realizes his personality problems and does something about it, becoming dedicated to a life of travel, service, and environmentalism. During this time he completely stops talking to his family. The book sees this as bad. Sorry, but I'm not biting. You can throw as many "good hearted quirky" moms at me as you want Oates. I’m still going to say not talking to a bunch of people who think abandoning your daughter because she got raped is the right choice. 

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