Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
originally published 1961
Vintage Books, 23rd printing, 2008
Synopsis & Review: Frank and April Wheeler are young, bright, and beautiful. They’ve lived as though “greatness is just around the corner,” and in the meantime, they’ll make small compromises. But those small compromises become major ones as Frank takes a job he cannot stand, and they have two children, and then move out of the city. Neither one of them is happy with the concessions they’ve made, so they make do by feeling superior to the young suburbanites who surround them. Beneath their charming, joie de vivre-filled facades, Frank and April are discontented and miserable, drowning in the “hopeless emptiness” of suburbia.
While Frank slowly begins making peace with his lot, April throws herself into projects to improve her quality of life: first community theatre, then a plan to move the family to France where they can both “find themselves.” But an unplanned pregnancy jeopardizes everything.
So, like the SUPERsmart person that I am, I thought it would be a great idea to read Revolutionary Road, Little Children, and The Group right before getting married. (Cuz like, I’m not smart—get it?) After I told them I’d read Revolutionary Road, and then began wondering aloud whether I was dooming myself to a lifetime of being unfulfilled and miserable, my sisters put the kibosh on my little reading list so that I wouldn’t psych myself out of getting married. (I am too suggestible sometimes.) Wise women.
Don’t think that Revolutionary Road isn’t good, however, because it is very, very good. “Bleak” is so often applied to Yates’ work, and it is apt, but there’s a beauty to the bleakness, a stark clarity that illuminates his writing with a chiaroscuro of emotions and impressions. It is unsentimental and capable of wrenching emotion from its readers. And most curiously, despite the fifty years that have passed since it was written, it could be a novel of the twenty-first century.
The problem with Frank and April–and with so many others like them: white, liberal, middle-class, (over)educated—is that they feel unordinary. They feel somehow special, destined for some unspecified greatness that never materializes, thus demoralizing them. The greatest trouble they face in their otherwise pleasant, unremarkable lives is this inability to accept their ordinariness, or to cope with it, a struggle inevitably intertwined with the change from adolescence to adulthood; despite their age, two children, Frank and April are romantic teenagers: imaginative enough to conceive of myriad possibilities, but lacking the drive to see their visions through.
Neither character is especially likable, but Yates makes them sympathetic. Though Frank is sometimes controlling, drinks to excess, commits adultery in the most prosaic fashion, and even hits April, we readers see and understand his desperate need to exercise some form of control over his life, to feel capable, to make decisions, even bad ones. When April tries to recapture her youthful ambitions via community theatre, or alternately neglects and smothers her children with affection, when she loves them and resents them equally, or tries to assert control over her body in a desperate bid for her own interior life, we understand. Unfortunately, April and Frank are ultimately incompatible; her fear makes her reckless and prone to extravagant acts, while Frank’s makes him more willing to compromise and give up his dreams, finally admitting to himself that he never believed in them to begin with.
Is April’s recklessness a feminine trait? Or is it a natural reaction to her position: restricted by social expectations and unable to assert control over her life in any problem bigger than what to wear or what canapé to serve? Since facing my own ordinariness, I’ve often made frantic and hopeless plans to escape: moving away to Miami or Detroit, joining the State Department, anything. Or is it a matter of individual character? Now that we have theoretically equal places in society (other than reproductively, of course), isn’t a man just as likely to run away, and a woman to self-soothe by retreating into the stifling hothouse existence she once railed against in college? Where picking the right tone of taupe for the living room walls becomes the most pressing need? Yates’ indictment of conformity is still relevant, appallingly so. We still play all the same roles—and they are roles. Jut as Frank picks up and discards whichever one will suit him best (intellectual, devoted husband, father, lover), we assume and discard our own roles (actress, punk, medievalist, foodie, bride-to-be, wife, prospective mother). In Yates’ novel, it is Frank who is the selfish, insecure one, while April retains a kind of integrity in her refusal to create an identity solely as a wife and mother (shades of The Feminine Mystique there) and in her desire for frankness and honesty. Unlike Frank who retreats further into artifice, she recognizes the emptiness and superficiality of their lives–and rails against it no matter the cost.
Brilliant, beautiful, and highly recommended. The movie is also excellent, but for the one big change.
Read also: The Group by Mary McCarthy, Little Children by Tom Perotta
Cover: Faded photograph of a car in front of a house. It could be anybody’s car, anybody’s house, in the late Fifties. Very nice, especially the washed out tones and red.
These moments were not always quite spontaneous; as often as not they followed as subtle effort of vanity on his part, a form of masculine flirtation that was as skillful as any girl’s. Walking toward or away from her across a restaurant floor, for example, he remembered always to do it in the old ‘terrifically sexy’ way, and when they walked together he fell into another old habit of holding his head unnaturally erect and carrying his inside shoulder an inch or two higher than the other, to give himself more loftiness from where she clung at his arm. When he lit a cigarette in the dark he was careful to arrange his features in a virile frown before striking and cupping the flame (he knew, from having practiced this at the mirror of a blacked-out bathroom years ago, that it made a swift, intensely dramatic portrait), and he paid scrupulous attention to endless details: keeping his voice low and resonant, keeping his hair brushed and his bitten fingernails out of sight; being always the first one athletically up and out of bed in the morning, so that she might never see his face lying swollen and helpless in sleep.
18 January – 20 January