Rating: 5 stars
This is the first Richard Yates novel I’ve read. I own it thanks to the Willoughby Book Club which, once I whittle my to read pile down, I intend to subscribe to again.
My first thoughts were that Yates is an Updike with charm, and that his prose style is the equivalent of Meryl Streep’s acting – a bubbling effervescence lying across hints of darker depths. Revolutionary Road is set at a similar time to Rabbit, Run. Its main male protagonist has similarities to Rabbit Angstrom, but he’s also more mature.
Frank and April Wheeler live on Revolutionary Road, a suburb that is commutable to New York. They live in a standard suburban house, with standard suburban neighbours, and have a standard suburban social life. Frank works in the sales department of a company that manufactures calculating and computing machinery. April is a stay at home mother.
Yates drip feeds the reader with information about their adolescence and family background, moving through their meeting and courtship to the early days of marriage and their current state of disillusionment and disappointment.
Neither character is likeable, and yet each seems very real. This is a story of meritocracy and the type of self-belief that leads some people to think that they can do anything, only to find that meritocracy isn’t as kind as that, and others to subconsciously know their limitations but feel that they ought to be striving for something. Each thinks of the other in a certain way, each has an idealised version of the other that they want them to be, each has lied to the other in substance or by omission about who they really are. They have little in common and neither is willing to confront the truth.
Frank is the narrator. We see things from his perspective. We see his self-regard and he seems a fool. He reminded me of Pete Campbell in Mad Men, someone who doesn’t know what he wants out of life or how he should occupy himself, and who ends up marrying a girl based on her looks and the status he feels it brings him, and working in a job that permits him to do as little as possible while still feeling superior to others.
We mostly see April through the prism of Frank’s perception of her. He doesn’t paint a great picture. To him, she is a conundrum who blows hot and cold and is play acting at being a suburban housewife, all the while feeling that her aspirations have been thwarted. To me, she is frustrated, longs to be free, longs to escape, and seems resentful of the way he holds her back.
They are not happy, trapped as they are in the mediocre life that a steady job and an anonymous house in the suburbs has afforded them. They plaster over each argument and fight, returning to the script until the next argument blows up. It’s awful, but I couldn’t look away.
Yates describes the awfulness beautifully. His prose is taut and compelling. Not a word is wasted. Every word chosen is positioned just so. I spent a lot of time asking why they were still together, at the same time understanding why they hadn’t separated. This is the 1950s. Divorce and separation isn’t easy. Instead, unhappily married people pretend their relationship is fine in public, fight like cat and dog at home, and embark on affairs through which they mean to convince themselves that they are still desirable, that they are still free. Horrible and sad.
Something in the way the story develops, and the way Yates reveals more about Frank, April and their social circle to make them fully human, made me realise how far we’ve come from the days of men needing to be men, and women needing to be women, in the cast iron roles dating from before the Second World War, and also how little distance we’ve travelled. Yates demonstrates that traditional gender roles were both adhered to and challenged by Frank and April’s generation, causing them confusion. A lot of what April says about feeling as though other people are leading a more exciting, fulfilling life than her, a life that she’s locked out of because she doesn’t know who she is, never mind who people expect her to be, is familiar. I guess it’s the human condition to not know who we are or what the rules are, while looking at other people and presuming that they have it nailed.
Yates makes the most mundane things seem interesting, thanks to his command of language. Trains shudder platforms, doors whisper, living rooms smell of weakness. He builds a world in words that you can feel and smell and hear.
I haven’t seen the film adaptation. I’m not a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet. I’m glad, because going into the book knowing its ending would have lessened its impact. I will watch the film eventually. Based on Yates’s characterisation of Frank and April, I think DiCaprio and Winslet are well cast.
I’m going to read more by Richard Yates. On the basis of this one book, he’s a new favourite.