In my time reviewing, I’ve given plenty of D’s but very few F’s. I have a strict personal policy on what makes a book an F for me: A book can bore me or annoy me and still have a shot at a D, but in order for it to get an F, it has to offend me. Mulligan Stew is an unequivocal F and has the dubious distinction of being the worst book I’ve ever read.
Our story begins in Reedville, Tennessee, where single mother Bridget Mulligan is burying her grandmother and wondering how she’s going to make ends meet for herself and her young son Jacob. My problems with this book started right away, because I also happen to be from rural Tennessee. I am certain that many readers will find my following criticisms petty and oversensitive, but every Southerner I’ve told about this book has bristled at my description of the stereotypes in the first chapter alone. We have:
- a snuff-dipping granny who gambled away the family trailer…
- before she got hit by a truck…
- while chasing a coon dog named General Lee…
- much to the amusement of the townspeople who look down on Bridget because she married that Irish guy who ran out on her.
Stover later follows this up with the tale of Bridget’s grandfather, who shot himself while hunting, drunk on moonshine. I grew up living in a house with a Labrador Retriever named Cody, and no one in my family has ever shot themselves in a moonshine accident or referred to anyone as Widow So-And-So. Granted, my grandmother did dip snuff, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. But even though Bridget’s lost the trailer, all is not lost; her lawyer informs her that her Irish husband Culley, who disappeared the day after their wedding six years ago, didn’t actually leave her, but got killed in a car accident in the next county. (In the real South, there is no way that word of an Irish tourist being killed in a wreck in the next county would not have gotten back to Bridget, but I digress.) Culley’s grandmother sat on the divorce papers until her death because she couldn’t bear the shame of the family finding out that Culley married a brazen hussy who would even think of (big gasp here) divorce when her husband disappeared off the face of the earth, leaving her alone and pregnant (yes, the papers mentioned child support). This is beyond cruel and self-righteous, but none of the characters ever mention having a problem with it. The rest of Bridget’s in-laws have just learned of her existence and want her to bring her son to Ireland to meet his father’s family.
When Bridget and Jacob arrive in Ireland, the Mulligan family welcomes them warmly, with the notable exception of Riley, Culley’s brother. Before he even meets Bridget and Jacob, Riley has made up his mind that Bridget is obviously a greedy slut out to cheat his family out of their castle, Caislean Dubh, by passing her brat (who happens to look just like Culley) off as his dead brother’s son. (Yeah, because a falling-down ruin is such a huge prize.) Riley knows his brother never would have married an American whore when he had that sweet lass Katie Readen waiting for him, never mind that Katie Rearden is a spoiled brat who throws temper tantrums at her own grandfather when he won’t let her get away with lying and stealing. (You can tell Katie is a bitch because she’s the only character in the book who speaks proper English.) After Riley meets Bridget and gets an Insta-Erection which we have to hear about for the rest of the book, he concedes that Culley might have slept with Bridget, but he never would have married her, so she still must be an imposter. Obviously Riley does not understand where babies come from. Riley takes out his frustrations over that erection on Bridget by running around the house calling her a witch. Uh, wrong century.
In the meantime, Bridget notices that she’s hearing mysterious whispers coming from the castle. This apparently means that she and Riley are supposed to be together, because he hears the whispers too. The paranormal aspect of the book, involving doomed lovers, a witch, a curse, and reincarnation, does not hold together well. Is Riley the reincarnation of the Mulligan who built Caislean Dubh, a man engaged to one woman but in love with another? Or shouldn’t that be Culley, who was the brother with a fiancée he didn’t love? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. The paranormal plot seems to exist mainly to get Bridget and Riley into bed through plot twists such as erotic dreams that have Bridget getting naked and writhing around in the castle where Riley discovers her. My ick factor went through the roof at that point.
The Irish fare little better than Southerners in characterization; they all gasp and cross themselves whenever someone happens to mention divorce or suicide and speak in psuedo-Irish brogue. It’s a pity, really, because both Ireland and the South have inspired wonderful satires by authors such as Malachy McCourt and Flannery O’Connor. The difference was that those authors actually knew something about the societies they were poking fun at. Mulligan Stew appears to have been researched by watching reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard complete with Lucky Charms commercials. When Bridget primly tells her sister-in-law that she shouldn’t stereotype Southerners, I almost fell out of my chair.
I might have been able to overlook the plot holes and silly stereotypes had I cared one bit about these characters. Obviously, I did not. Did you ever read a book with a “hero” so horrid you hated the entire book because of him? Riley Mulligan is that hero’s evil twin. He’s mean, ignorant, sexist, cruel, hypocritical, and to top it off, dumb as a box of rocks. He’s even mean to little Jacob, who’s all of six years old. Most villains aren’t this loathsome. My idea of a happy ending for this book involved Riley falling off a cliff. Bridget isn’t nearly as annoying, and in a better book I might have liked her, but any woman who would get involved with Riley needs her head checked.
For me, Mulligan Stew was a true wallbanger – you can tell just by looking at my bent and battered review copy. I would have banged it harder but I felt sorry for the wall. Have pity on your wall and read something else.