I knew I could rely on all of you, thank you for all the suffragette reading suggestions yesterday, and thank you too for ensuring that I picked up Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates after that Orange Inheritance/Vintage Classics post a few weeks ago. Quite coincidentally someone had chosen it as their 1950s theme read for last month's Endsleigh Salon and advocated for the book with a passion, so powerful messages coming from all directions that here was a book not to miss.
What I can't quite understand is how I've missed it this far along and why haven't I really heard much about or read anything by Richard Yates??
The Orange Inheritance edition has an eye-opening introduction from Lionel Shriver who chose this book for the series as a book to pass on to the next generation, and given a 'gasp' moment in Revolutionary Road that almost matches her own in We Need to Talk About Kevin, it all seems like an apposite choice.
What follows is a brilliant evocation of post-war America through the lives of 'It' couple, Connecticut-based Frank and April Wheeler and their two children. Frank is commuting daily to a mundane office job in New York which he'd do with his eyes shut if he did it at all, as it is he goes through the motions but does very little, whilst April is the archetypal stay-at-home mum. But this is the superior couple, with delusions of being grander than their contemporaries and when April suggests that she and Frank and the children up-sticks and move to France this seems like the ultimate in sophisticated gestures. The plan is a thoroughly modern one for the times, April will work and support the family whilst Frank can have some downtime to 'discover' himself
Coming from two entirely different backgrounds and childhoods April and Frank bring very different qualities to their marriage and their parenting. Frank secure but repressed, April from a broken home and a disjointed childhood, insecure and with very few anchors to hold her on a steady course. With little resilience, April is a boat very easily rocked and sadly Frank, so wrapped up in his own ego, only too capable of doing so. Meanwhile the children remain shadowy, like all good children of the 1950s largely seen and not heard unless it is within the arc of their parents' displeasure.
By suggesting it as a destination for his couple Richard Yates is making the ultimate statement that mainland Europe is still where it's all at, seeming in many ways to be buying into that sense of Parisian exclusivity so redolent of the times. In spite of the war, Paris still has that bohemian and Hemingway-esque feel about it, whilst post-war rural Connecticut feels as staid and predictable as rural Devon probably was, whilst New York seems as mundane as ...as... well let's say Slough and see if anyone out there wants to defend Slough against such a scurrilous suggestion. Settled though discontent lives will be thrown into many degrees of turmoil, and life will become even more turbulent before the final page and that's that on plot because there is too much to give away here.
Into the narrative Richard Yates places a series of supporting characters who provide the warp and weft of the book. The friends, Shep and Milly Campbell, conservative and predictable, the perfect foil for the Wheelers to play out their need to be different, and then the neighbours, Mr and Mrs Givings and their son John. John an in-patient in a local psychiatric facility and a regular visitor to the Wheeler's home when he is allowed out on day visits. And here Richard Yates explores the very essence of sanity... figuring out who is sane and who is not and who has the right to decide kept me very well-exercised as I read, John is the antagonist, the truth-teller, uninhibited by custom or politeness and to Frank and April's acute discomfort, capable of seeing through the opaqueness of surface layers to the clarity of what lies beneath and unafraid of saying the unsayable.
This seems on the surface like a post-war America in complete contrast to a post-war Britain yet on reflection I'm not so sure the distinction is that evident. Britain bruised and battered by the war, America perhaps less so for not having suffered any mainland damage, an untouchable nation brimming with confidence and ambition and ready for risk which all allowed me ponder simplistically about the two opposing effects of post-war life.
Does it make you risk-averse, as perhaps here in Britain, where most people felt lucky to have survived the Blitz, making them less likely to do anything to jeopardise their future safety and security. Conversely in America was the need to take risks more prevalent, along the lines of well we survived that we can survive anything life throws at us so let's go out there and find it??
For me the joy of the read was not knowing how this was going to pan out. Would April and Frank go to Europe or wouldn't they?
If they did how would they fare?
If they didn't how would they fare?
Many of you will know what happens but for the handful that don't best prepare yourselves for one of the saddest endings a book could possibly hold.
I must be the only person on the planet who hasn't watched the film of Revolutionary Road, and though I gather it is entirely faithful to the book I'm not sure I want to see it at the moment. For now the book feels entirely fulfilled unto itself in my imagination and in no need of any visual assistance... a really superb read and as to reading more Richard Yates... I'll await your suggestions again.