By: Richard Yates
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
In the hopeful 1950s, Frank and April Wheeler appear to be a model couple: bright, beautiful, talented, with two young children and a starter home in the suburbs. Perhaps they married too young and started a family too early. Maybe Frank’s job is dull. And April never saw herself as a housewife. Yet they have always lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. But now that certainty is about to crumble. With heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity, Richard Yates shows how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves.
So it was the year that Kate Winslet had two movies coming out, The Reader and Revolutionary Road. I wanted to read the former but in the search for it, my mum picked up the latter for me. For reasons that I will touch on in greater detail after the cut, I didn’t really enjoy this novel the first time around; it left me really, really, REALLY angry/frustrated/whathaveyou with the characters involved. But despite of it, the story stuck in my mind and years later, I decided to revisit it to see if time has given me a different perspective to this novel.
This book is part of the A Year in Re-Reading: a 2014 Reading Challenge that I am participating in.
After the cut contains major spoilers!
I guess I’ll start this entry by saying that the writing is superb. I think it’s one of the reasons why the novel has stuck with me over the years even though it left me so O_O the first time around. Yates has a way of just bringing the characters and the period to life and his sentences have a way of really hitting the mood or the thought square on the head. There’s a number of quotes from this novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Having said that, re-reading this book the second time apparently was just as harrowing as the first. I think I’ve come to a bit of a love-hate relationship with the story. On the one hand, I sympathise with Frank and April’s situation. As the parts progress, you can feel the claustrophobic, trapped feeling that’s closing in on them; they want to change their lives, fulfill whatever dreams they had, but they’re tied down by convention, by circumstance, by necessity. Their sense of unfulfillment is palpable with every page as they struggle to keep it together. Maybe it’s also because I’m closer in age with these characters this time around that I understand some of their feelings better and perhaps on some level relate to them.
On the other hand, ugh, these two. I seem to spring between pity and fury with these two characters; at some points I just wanted to chuck the novel onto the subway tracks (I was re-reading this book to and from my classes). I think I agree with the book blurb that having married young was a contributing factor to the disintegration of their relationship and their characters; they had ideas and they wanted to do things that I think are just not feasible as a married couple with two young children. As the novel progresses, it seemed the more out of sync they were becoming–granted, the reader is sort of thrown into their already troubled marriage at the start of the novel–that communication, open-mindedness and that sense of partnership and coming up with a mutual solution was just out of the question. I get the feeling that they never gelled that way–it seemed to go as far back to the first pregnancy–so perhaps it was just a matter of time before they imploded. And, gosh, as the arguments got worse and they sort of turned on each other in a nasty way–saying they don’t love each other, using the unborn child as some sort of leverage, using their individual past as excuse–not only were they intense but their chemistry was downright toxic.
On another point, I think they shouldn’t have committed themselves to such a relationship in the first place. I know, it’s a difficult to make the claim especially as their backstory on how they met and the early years of their marriage was laid out briefly, but the further I read, the more I realised that Frank and April have no idea who they are as individuals. This was touched on in April’s case, which seemed more obvious I suppose given her childhood and her life prior to meeting Frank, but I’d argue the same with Frank. He had an idea of what he wanted–some vague notion, some details pointed out by April–but after entering the work world and the hundrum of the same routine, I think he got lost in the masses: just another office worker, doing something he doesn’t fully understand just to earn the money. On top of it, he’s also not firm in his beliefs; for example, he doesn’t want April to get an abortion and yet he bumbles on and says he’s not sure why he doesn’t want that. I don’t think it has anything to do with his manhood as John Givings later points out but rather While he’s lost in that routine, April’s case I think is more severe because she’s clearly a formidable woman who wants more things in her life but a) women in the 50s don’t have as many opportunities, try as she might and b) perhaps largely due to a) she’s more or less pinned her hopes on Frank through concocting the plan to more to Europe, etc. This is, of course, not to say that one was better than the other; they’re both pretty messed up the further along we go.
It’s interesting because then I find myself wondering if these two have any redeeming qualities–one of the many reasons why I rated this novel so low the first time around. The book blurb says that they betrayed their better selves, and I have no doubt about it, but aside from the scant bits about their past, I wonder exactly what those qualities were, especially in April’s case. I have no doubt that Frank can be a kind man, and I know April is a smart woman, but there seems to have been a jump between when Frank and April met, talked, slept together to his proposal. Why did she say yes? (another mystery)
I would be curious to see if my feelings were any different had this book been written predominantly from April’s POV. There are chapters written from her point of view but it’s predominantly from Frank’s POV. While Frank goes through these hot-and-cold phases (shouts out his feelings, then retracts and tries to apologise), She does come off the page as rather cold throughout. I can sort of see the reasonings behind some of the decisions she makes and why she says what she says, but it would have been more informative read. I can imagine April must be quite a study in the feminist theory circles as her situation encompasses many themes and struggles.
The commentary on the American dream of the 1950s is also an interesting one, how the Wheelers have the facade of being a stable, perfect family with the lovely house and lovely kids but underneath it there’s obviously the marital strife and the restlessness and the sense of uncertainty and disappointment. I think John Givings serves as the voice of criticism to that facade; he’s diagnosed as mentally ill but he’s observant enough to dig deeper into the Wheelers’ problems, into society’s problems (or at least, the way the people on Revolutionary Road works). Which is probably why he got along so well with the Wheelers when they were planning on moving to Europe; they were breaking out of the mold that American society laid out at the time. I don’t remember what I thought of him the first time around but he definitely caught my attention in this re-read. In the same vein, the secondary characters were also interesting, all of them floating along, alone in their own microcosm with their own tragedies: Shep and his hopeless infatuation with April, Milly and her sort of blankness, Mrs. Givings and the hand she had been dealt.
As frustrated as I was with the main characters of this novel, I’m glad I re-read it. As a novel–structure, the drama, the tragedy, the themes–it’s fantastic; the story flows and you’re invested to find out how everything will turn out (however anxiety-/frustration-inducing it is). As a reading expeirence though, I just wanted to throttle Frank and April and smack some sense into them. Sure, they’re both going through some pretty major stuff that only they can work through, but their stubbornness and inability to work together and empathise with each other and communicate just fuelled the tragedy into its conclusion. At the end of the day, you know who I really feel bad for completely? The kids, Jennifer and Michael.
So, this book in short?