(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

We Were the Mulvaneys focuses almost exclusively on the six characters who make up the nuclear Mulvaney family. Michael, Sr., one of nine children, quarrels with the family of his childhood as a way of precipitating their abandonment of him. His background propels him into a very different kind of adult world, one where he is astonished by love and by fatherhood. Until Marianne's rape, he had been a good father, hard-working, proud, committed to his wife and children. But he is unable to break the cycle of family dysfunction when Marianne's rape estranges him from the world he believed would protect his family emotionally just as the roofs he builds protect them physically. Oates does, however, enable the two older sons to break the cycle of dysfunction that so often engulfs generations of families by having them quarrel with their father as a way of finding a healthier autonomy than Michael found when he was disowned by his father.

One of the perplexing aspects about We Were the Mulvaneys is why Corinne chooses her husband over her daughter. A patriarchal, fundamentalist faith may explain some of this, but Corinne has not been a victim of patriarchy. Rather, she has been an independent woman within her marriage and has nurtured this independence in her children. In fact, she is so concerned with not intruding on their privacy that she at times does not even see them, so much so that it is days before she discovers Marianne's rape. She is a mother who knows how to release her children because she is also a fatalist who believes that they will find their way as she found hers by following fireflies in winter. She releases but she does not abandon her children: From the...

(The entire section is 693 words.)