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We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates 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.

Read more . . .

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.
Plume (September 30, 1997)

Book Club Ideas

Although We Were the Mulvaneys is a rather somber novel, the family comes together for a festive 4th of July celebration. Corinne decorated with red, white and blue streamers and napkins, American flag table runners, and little flags. But no fireworks! These were forbidden by Corinne.

In keeping with the theme, choose some patriotic tunes such as those found on American Celebration – The Ultimate Patriotic Music Collection.

Book Club Menu

There was so much food at the Mulvaney 4th of July picnic, preparing a menu for the book club party should be a snap.

The main course included hotdogs, grilled hamburgers, chicken with Sable’s Special Texas Hot Sauce, and a Virginia ham.


The family prepared yellow squash from Corinne’s garden, Judd brought sweet corn, and there were salads, muffins, and biscuits.

Yellow-Squash-Casserole corn on the cob

For dessert choose one or more of Judd’s four birthday cakes. A fudgey chocolate cake, Whit’s Carrot Pumpkin Ginger Yogurt Pound Cake, an angel food cake with sculpted egg white frosting, or a strawberry ice cream cake in a heart-shaped pan. Check out this fancy strawberry ice cream cake from

Chocolate Cake

Whit’s Carrot Pumpkin Ginger Yogurt Pound Cake proved to be a bit of challenge.
After some experimentation and two cakes later, I got it!
Carrot Pumpkin Ginger Yogurt Pound Cake

Book Club Resources

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 3.67 stars (74,021 ratings)
Amazon: 3.2 stars (586 ratings)
LibraryThing: 3.58 stars (1,075 ratings)
My Rating: 4 stars We Were the Mulvaneys reminded me very much of my own family dynamic growing up. It is beautifully written and moving, and painfully touched a nerve.

Discussion Questions

Spoiler Alert: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.

1. After the rape, Marianne keeps repeating, “I am as much to blame as he is.” Does the narrative back this assertion up in any way? How much does Oates actually reveal about what happened that night?
2. Both parents reject their daughter after the rape. Why? How are their reasons different? Are we meant to condemn both of them for their cruelty to Marianne? Or is their action somehow understandable and forgivable?
3. What role does the farm play in the life of this family? Is Oates making some larger point about the difficulties and tragedies of the family farm in American society?
4. Why is it Patrick—the scientist, the cold rationalist—who acts to “execute justice” on Marianne’s rapist?
5. Animals are at the heart of the Mulvaney family—they not only love their cats, dogs, birds, and horses, they love each other and communicate with each other through their animals. Is this a family strength, or does it reveal something skewed in the family emotional dynamic? Have they in a sense glorified their animals by playing up their “cuddly” loving qualities and overlooking their darker instincts? Does their connection with the animals change after Marianne is raped?
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6. Darwin and the theory of evolution are discussed at several points in the novel. What point is Oates trying to make with this? How does Darwinian evolution relate to the central incident of the book?
7. Marianne is a Christian and Patrick is a rationalist—yet theirs is a bond that remains most intact after the rape. Are their worldviews more closely related than either of them believes? Or does the rape and its consequences somehow reconcile them not only emotionally but intellectually and spiritually as well?
8. If Marianne’s rape happened today instead of in the mid-1970s, would the impact on the family and on her life have been very different? What if the Mulvaney?s lived in a big city instead of in a small town—would the rape have a different “meaning”?
9. Does the novel’s ending in a joyous family reunion come as a shock after so much misery and heartbreak? Is this meant to be a lasting redemption?
10. Does Oates encourage a traditional good-and-evil reading of her novel? Or does she lead us to reexamine these very categories?
(Discussion Questions from Penguin Books USA)

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The Author

Joyce Carol Oates Joyce Carol Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. She has been received awards and recognition for several of her numerous works.

Joyce Carol Oates has also been recognized by the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Lotus Club, and the 1996 PEN/Malamud Award for lifetime achievement in the short story form.

Other Works by Joyce Carol Oates

The Gravediggers Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates

For a complete list of Joyce Carol Oates’ works please click here.

Personal Insights, Favorite Quotes, etc…

Do you have a favorite quote from We Were the Mulvaneys? Here is one of mine …

“In a family, what isn’t spoken is what you listen for. But the noise of a family is to drown it out.”

Joyce Carol Oates reflects on her epic family novel We Were the Mulvaneys “…it came in time, to remind me, so very unexpectedly, of a Shakespearean tragedy in which no one is actually “wrong” and yet all suffer.

We Were the Mulvaneys was made into a Lifetime Television movie in 2002 starring Jeff Bridges as Michael and Blythe Danner as Corinne. It was nominated for three Emmys and is currently available on DVD.

Do you have any other ideas or recipes for a book club party for We Were the Mulvaneys? We would love to have you share them with us! You can leave a comment below and upload pictures as well.

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