Review of Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates…
First published in America in 1961, Richard Yates’ debut novel rightly won instant and long-lasting critical acclaim. Set in 1950s suburban America, it is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple bringing up two children whilst battling the banality of everyday life and a relationship devoid of romance and vitality. Yates adds brilliantly crafted characters be they neighbours, wearisome friends or work colleagues to emphasise a humdrum life in which an underlying resentment between the couple is constantly simmering below the surface.
Peppered by imaginary dialogues in Franks’ head, we see him trying to console his wife following a humiliating debut stage play in front of a local audience. This acting out of imaginary scenarios in a bid to avoid confrontation is symptomatic of a decaying relationship already fraught with bitter arguments, neither can say what was once intuitive to one another and the dying embers of an intense affair begins to peter out into a routine of sleeping apart, snide comments and Franks wandering eyes and ultimately, hands. When once he dazzled April with his diatribes and ‘sexy walk’ he now bores her: “But the worst part-the worst part of the whole weekend, if not of his life to date-was the way April was looking at him. He had never seen such a state of pitying boredom in her eyes. It haunted him all night while he slept alone, it was there in the morning….and riding to work, one of the youngest and healthiest passengers on the train, he sat with the look of a man condemned to a very slow, painful death. He felt middle aged”
On the face of it, the Wheeler’s are a couple to be envied, she is still young and attractive, he is reaching thirty and can, on occasion, be charm personified, their neighbours look upon them with some degree of envy whilst they feel a sense of superiority and an entitlement to a better life. The neighbours misguided view is, in large part, down to the deceptive nature of the Wheeler’s marriage and the struggle to feign affection at dinner parties begins to take its toll. Stuck in a cycle of late afternoon drinking following dreary, unproductive days at the offices of the Knox Business Machine Company, Frank is taken aback by April’s sudden desire to resuscitate their relationship by blaming herself for his boredom and asking him to run away to Europe to live in order for Frank to realise his true artistic inner-self, if it truly existed.
April throws herself into planning for Paris and devoting herself to her husband, they become intimate again and potential areas of conflict are smothered before they can spark a row. On the surface, life seems good but Yates creates a sense of quietly impending failure; warning signs are thrown up by a sudden interest in Frank from his employer, Frank’s sexual conquest of one of his secretaries and later, we discover, April’s spontaneous fling with the husband of her best friend. Yates crafts Frank’s deliberations over the young secretary quite brilliantly. In typical fashion we see a man consumed with the desire to prove he can still attract younger women followed by the sense of empowerment her attraction to him brings and then, unsurprisingly, the manifestation of guilt and regret which leads him to dump her.
The interplay between the neighbours is particularly fascinating, Yates adds another dimension to the study of the Wheeler’s through the dialogue of others and in particular the addition of John Givings, the mentally disturbed adult son of Howard and Helen Givings. Here we see the stigma of mental health problems come to the fore, the mother is particularly embarrassed by her son and his fiery objectivity as he cuts through the sham of pretence he sees in the Wheeler’s plans as well as his mother’s preoccupation with her social standing. “Big family man you got here April, big family man, solid citizen. I feel sorry for you. Still, maybe you deserve each other”
As Frank battles between going abroad for his wife’s sake and the temptation of promotion, the build up to the inevitable crossroads of decision is cut short by an unplanned pregnancy. Frank’s relief is palpable yet he doesn’t want a third child. April blames herself for ruining his chance to escape his job and following a destructive afternoon with John Givings and his parents, the pretence of their revived affections unravels itself in a blazing row. Frank is back to his former, bitter self and April declares her despise of him. Throughout the book one feels the story will not end well, it doesn’t. There is tragedy in a final act, a shocking finale to a deeply sad and troubled relationship which rocks the suburban quiet of Revolutionary Road albeit it for a short while until Yates reminds us that life goes on and suburbia carries on with all of its complexities.
As a footnote, kudos to Penguin Classics for their republishing of this and other great titles, whoever commissions the cover artwork for this and other titles in the series deserves a mention.
Categories: The Reading Room