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Fiction

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road is another one of those books that I should have read but yet to do so. Kurt Vonnegut heralded it as “The Great Gatsby of my time…”, a movie starring Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio was made to critical acclaim, it was in my TBR list… All the reasons that made me glad that I read the book. And all it takes is just two sittings.

Revolutionary Road is a story about a bright young couple Frank and April Wheeler in 1955 America, who suspect there is more than life outside their tranquil suburban community, were bored by the banalities of it and long to be extraordinary. The Wheelers have two children, Jennifer and Michael. They moved to a suburbia with a big house and a yard, close-knitted community with the help of real estate agent, Mrs Giving. Frank commutes daily to New York city for work in a company called Knox machine. Getting by and doing minimal, Frank works on a dull job for 7 years just for the paycheck; whilst chatting up and going out with the receptionist for some adulterous fun.

Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly full homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in their environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always , was to remember who you were. – Frank, Page 20.

The book opens with a disastrous theatre night of April’s performance and Frank was trying to find the right word to comfort his wife. Frustrated and upset, April spiralled into the abyss of emotional breakdowns; which I suspect was a mental pre-condition of April rather than an effect from the theatre night disaster. Try as hard as Frank could to make amends, April chose to shut down and contemplate an alternative future. A future to work in Paris…. the thought of it would elevate them out from their current mundane existence.

The Wheelers spends their weekends with Shep and Milly Campbells spending their time in their smugness laughing at the commonness of others:

… even after politics had palled there had still been the elusive but endlessly absorbing subject of Conformity, or The Suburbs, or Madison Avenue, or American Society Today. “Oh Jesus,” Shep might begin, “you know this character next door to us?  Donaldson?  The one that’s always out fooling with his power mower and talking about the rat race and the soft sell?  Well listen:  did I tell you what he said about his barbeque pit?”  And there would follow an anecdote of extreme suburban smugness that left them week with laughter.

And very recently the Wheelers also spend time with their real estate agent, Mrs and Mr Giving, so that her son, John (a mental patient), has someone his age to talk to.

Revolutionary Road is the name of the street the Wheelers live on, but my first take was that the couple was about to embark on the revolutionary road on a path of changes, one that involves uprooting the family and settle in a foreign country. Back in the 50’s it is hardly a rational decision for a couple with family to consider but now it is more common than ever that couples in their early 30’s are making big life changing decision to relocate to other parts of the world. I did it, my friends did it, and it is never easy. The common misconception of happiness is out there, drove many to abandon their current security to pursue the unknown. I am not saying I’m one of them, but I have seen it at work in other families. Grandeur a plan as it is, sometimes one comes out better off, sometimes not. It is a gamble.

It is always good to read a book without any inkling about the plot and the character. Nothing quite prepare me for how easy it is for the pages to fly by, to be absorbed in both Frank’s emptiness and April’s pain. View in any angle there are so much to discuss about the book. Why does Frank and April are in the marriage? Security? Obligation? Or an escape for April? Do they love each other? Why did they have children if they don’t want them in the first place? Is it societal pressure that we got to have all these (house, a car, a job, a family) to prove that we made it in life? How far does Frank has to prove that he is really a man, when every look every talk from April implies that he is a lesser man?

Isn’t that the damnedest thing? I didn’t want a baby any more than she did. Wasn’t it true, then, that everything in his life from the point on had been a succession of things he hadn’t really wanted to do? Taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be as responsible as any other family man, moving to an overpriced, genteel apartment to prove his mature belief in the fundamentals of orderliness and good health, having another child to prove that the first one hadn’t been a mistake, buying a house in the country because that was the next logical step and he had to prove himself capable of taking it. Proving, proving; and for no other reason than that he was married to a woman who had somehow managed to put him forever on the defensive, who loved him when he was nice, who lived according to what she happened to feel like doing and who might at any time just happen to feel like leaving him. It was as ludicrous and as simple as that. – Frank, page 51.

It’s this cynical approach to the suburbia, Yates wrote this in his 30’s and I think has every intention to question and to shock, and shock he did. I didn’t expect the novel to end in such tragedy. I’m not sure if I can bear to watch the movie adaptation now but I often let curiosity gets the better of me, maybe I will. The writing is very theatrical and dramatic. Not because a movie has been made on it, although I can’t help placing both Kate and Leo’s faces in Frank and April’s shoes when I imagine the scenes from the book. Yates has created a vivid portrait of a very complex and psychotic April. I must say, Yates writing is very good. The dialogues seem to be straight out of a Hollywood movie script. I read the book feeling like watching a movie rather than feeling like I actually reading a book, if you get what I mean.

My favourite passage of how April feels like her life has passed her by:

“I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere, as far ahead of me as the seniors at Rye when I was in the sixth grade; people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I’d suddenly know that I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I’d been meant to be one of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake; and they’d know it too. I’d be like the ugly duckling among the swans.”

Yates words comforts and sears my heart like very few writers do. For this brilliance, albeit the tragic ending I’m rating this 5-star. I’m looking out for his other novels.

Rating: 

Paperback. Publisher: Vintage 2007, originally published 1961; Length: 337 pages; Setting: 1955 Suburban Connecticut, America. Source: Own. Finished reading at: 28th December 2011.

Other views:

A Novel Menagerie: Listen, the book isn’t perfect and the story has considerable sadness to it, but it is a very good book despite all of that. I’m not making sense, I’m sure. This book is a tragedy, but one that is easily related to.

101books: If you’re up for a sad story, then Revolutionary Road is an excellent choice. The novel starts sad and only gets sadder. It follows the same formula as Blood Meridian, except that it’s not the violence that keeps increasing—it’s your depression as you read the book. Powerful, intense story. Don’t let the sadness turn you off. You don’t want to miss Richard Yates’s writing.

She is too fond of books: It’s this cynical approach to the suburbs, to career goals, to treating children as playthings or accessories, that reminds me a bit of Ayn Rand’s writing.  I enjoyed it – there was a lot of dry wit, making Revolutionary Road and its inhabitants caricatures of the worst of the suburbs; but it didn’t leave me in a hurry to read Yates’ other works.  From what I gather, the themes of loneliness and hopelessness run through his eight other novels, including Cold Spring HarborThe Easter Parade andDisturbing the Peace.  Considering that it was first published in 1961, I’m sure Revolutionary Road was enlightening and shocking for its time.

Did I miss you review? Let me know and I’ll add it in.

Have you read the book or the movie? Did you find it too depressing?

About the Writer

Richard Yates (February 3, 1926 – November 7, 1992) was an American novelist and short story writer, known for his exploration of mid-20th century life. Born in Yonkers, New York, Yates came from an unstable home. His parents divorced when he was three and much of his childhood was spent in many different towns and residences. Yates first became interested in journalism and writing while attending Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut.

After leaving Avon, Yates joined the Army, serving in France and Germany during World War II. By the middle of 1946, he was back in New York. Upon his return to New York he worked as a journalist, freelance ghost writer (briefly writing speeches for Attorney General Robert Kennedy) and publicity writer for Remington Rand Corporation. His career as a novelist began in 1961 with the publication of the widely heralded Revolutionary Road.

Yates’s first novel, Revolutionary Road, was a finalist for the National Book Award that year (alongside Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, which won, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22). Yates was championed by writers as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut, Dorothy Parker, William Styron, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. Yates’s brand of realism was a direct influence on writers such as Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.

For much of his life, Yates’s work met almost universal critical acclaim, yet not one of his books sold over 12,000 copies in hardcover first edition. All of his novels were out of print in the years after his death, though his reputation has substantially increased posthumously and many of his novels have since been reissued in new editions.

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

  1. I wonder if I’d like it. It does remind me a bit (somehow, not the story line) of Tender is the Night by Scott Fitzgerald that I read – partially, as I didn’t enjoy it. But since you gave this 5 stars… Maybe I should try!

    Posted by Judith / Leeswammes | December 30, 2011, 7:31 pm
  2. Fascinating review. I may well read this – my younger daughter is studying the works of Raymond Carver currently and some of the points you make in your review sound familiar with the landscape in his short stories.The American dream turns to ashes. I particularly relate to what you write about people making great moves in order to change their lives, or so they think. I have considered it but never done it- lots of scientists do it regularly as a matter of course, and I have often wondered how they deal with it.

    Posted by Maxine | December 30, 2011, 9:50 pm
    • Maxine,
      Making a big move is one of my fascinating topic to discuss. We live in sort of a peaceful time where there isn’t a world war or tumultuous events that threaten our lives but we do live in a very economically volatile times and some people may opt to migrate due to economical reasons. It is a great anthropology topic to discuss, when one uproot and have to start all over again in a strange place, it challenges the very fundamentals and beliefs that one may hold dear. I think everyone should at least be challenges once life this in their lifetime to sort of experience the challenge; but then it can get very ugly and one may wish for a tranquil status quo to spare all the hardship and heartaches. You either find or lost yourself. It is a risk and a gamble.

      p/s: I can’t believe you have a daughter that old to study the works of Raymond Carver! (it’s a compliment!) 😀

      Posted by JoV | December 31, 2011, 2:01 am
      • Actually I am quite surprised she is studying Raymond Carver as she is only 16, but there you go! She is studying the IB instead of A levels and I think the course is a bit more adventurous/challenging. She asked me for similar books for xmas by the way so I gave her Awakenenings and other stories by Kate Chopin, Franny and Zooey by Salinger (as she liked Catcher in the Rye a while back) and with some trepidation as I really don’t like this series, the first Rabbit book by Updike. (I dislike the American male-ego genre of self-analysis being more important than any external event, but that’s a personal view;-) ).

        You are very kind to make that remark about my daughters – I do think they are both older than me actually! (The older one is 20). They both may well have to face the economic decisions you mention, as they decide what to do with their lives as adults, I guess.

        Have a wonderful new year – as usual I have enjoyed reading your blog in 2011 and look forward to reading it next year.

        Posted by Maxine | December 31, 2011, 11:59 am
        • Maxine,
          Your daughter is more well read than I am! and by the time she gets to my age, she will super-duper well read! 😀
          Oh dear, tell me about it, I hate Rabbit, Run. I thought I was the only one until I received a few feedback and there are many who equally hated it!
          See my review at: https://bibliojunkie.wordpress.com/2010/09/12/rabbit-run-by-john%C2%A0updike/

          I like to think that we could reverse aging. I used to look much older, haggard when I was younger than I am now. I gather you look like their sisters when you are out and about.

          Thank you for your kind word Maxine. I don’t always relate to all crime fiction books but a few that you have recommended I have found them to be good. It’s been great having you here. 😉

          Posted by JoV | December 31, 2011, 8:54 pm
          • I am much more haggard than my daughters, that is for sure 😉 But they act like they know everything and I know nothing, so I meant “older than me” in that sense. I think this is just part of life – older people are thought to be a bit outdated, to put it politely 😉

            The IB is the International Baccalaureate, which you can do as public exams for your final 2 years at high school (you can also do A levels) in the UK.

            I read your review of Rabbit, thanks. A lot of those US male “navel gazing” books have bored me tremendously over the years – Roth, Ford, Mailer etc, but I know I am in a minority. I like Steinbeck and Scott Fitzgerald, though they were writing before the others. (Not so much Hemingway).

            Posted by Maxine | December 31, 2011, 9:44 pm
          • Maxine,
            The Baccalaureate is definitely a tougher animal than the A levels. All the very best to your daughter. She will excel!

            Posted by JoV | January 1, 2012, 8:28 pm
  3. Hmmm your review has confused me even more. I’ve been tempted to watch the film for a while but then realised there was a book so was unsure which way to do it. But now you’ve said it is depressing I’m a little worried about it…I recently watched Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet in and it was just too depressing!!

    Posted by jessicabookworm | December 31, 2011, 5:55 pm
    • Jessica,
      The book is a tad depressing at the end but it was ok at the beginning. I suppose Kate Winslet is suited for such role but she is a great actress. So give it a go, either way.

      Posted by JoV | December 31, 2011, 9:06 pm
  4. This one has been on my list forever and I still haven’t read it. This year? Hope, so.

    Posted by Ti | January 2, 2012, 11:24 pm
  5. Like you I came to this book later than I should have – I read it about two or three years ago. I thought it was pretty good but a little dated. You wrote a very good review of it above.

    Just been going though your blog – you have some great design ideas . I tend to keep mine very minimalist and uncluttered but the way you’ve added bits and pieces to yours so effectively makes me think I could do rather more to spruce things up

    Posted by Tom Cunliffe | January 3, 2012, 9:22 am
    • Tom,
      I thought I’ll move away from the dark grundge look and do something more clean and white this year, so I opt for a magazine look. What I like about the theme is that I’m able to change my header and background pictures. So there is always little ways of making the blog looks different if I want to.

      I think minimalist and uncluttered is good.

      Posted by JoV | January 5, 2012, 10:54 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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