After twenty-five previous novels over the span of three decades, Joyce Carol Oates accomplished something with We were the Mulvaneys in 1996 that she’d never done before: she hit the number-one spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Although the number of copies planned for the first printing indicated that publishers expected the book to connect with the public in a big way, that unprecedented rise to bestseller status for Oates was clearly not just the result of producing a strong story recognized as one of great accomplishment by critics.
While book reviewers across the country welcomes We Were the Mulvaneys with a shower of high praise, it was really just one critic in particular who played the biggest role in making the book the success it became: Oprah Winfrey.
Once Oprah Winfrey announced that We Were the Mulvaneys was the inaugural selection for the 2001 edition of the Oprah Book Club, that first printing of 75,000 proved insufficient. The sudden spike in sales of hundreds of thousands of copies not only catapulted the book to the top of the bestseller list, but also stimulated interest from the Hallmark Network, which produced a made-for-TV film in 2002 that earned three nominations and spurred even more sales.
The long-delayed commercial blockbuster status for Oates was particularly sweet coming as it did for this novel. We Were the Mulvaneys is unusually long for an Oates novel and was one of the more time-consuming efforts in her career. That extra effort reaped a harvest—especially with a book that also veers from her established pattern by virtue of an ending that within the universe of Joyce Carol Oates actually can be termed happy.