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14th December
2009
written by Steph
I know, I know, the wretched movie tie-in cover... but it's the copy I read (because it was cheap)!

I know, I know, the wretched movie tie-in cover... but it's the copy I read (because it was cheap)!

Due to a dismal turn-out at my real-life book club last month, I was selected as “She Who Will Choose Next Month’s Book”.  I always agonize over potential choices when it comes my time to choose, because few people in my book club are as voracious readers as I am.  I worry that many of my picks will be too challenging for many of them (not that they aren’t all smart ladies, just that I’m not entirely certain what many of them tend to pick on the “reading to relax” front) or too long (for a while we had a “no books longer than 300 pages” rule, which I thought was foolish).  I wanted to pick books that the rest of my group would be excited about but that would also promote good discussion; in the past I’ve picked Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.   This time I decided to shake things up and pick books that have been turned into movies, hoping that the prospect of getting to watch a film at our round-up would entice more people to actually read the book and attend the meeting!  I pitched three options and everyone voted, and in the end, Revolutionary Road nearly unanimously beat out In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Euginides. I went into the novel not knowing much about it, but I doubt many of you are in the same boat – this book has found a good deal of prominence in the book blogosphere, so it’s actually quite remarkable I went in as unspoiled as I did.  I pretty much just though it would be about a young couple’s marriage that was somehow sad/depressing, but that’s it!  Come to think of it, that’s actually a pretty good synopsis… 😉  For those of you looking for a bit more, the basic narrative thrust behind the novel is that the Wheelers, Frank & April, are a young married couple who had kids seven-years too early and have consequently moved to the suburbs in an attempt to embody the good old-fashioned American family.  Both Frank & April find suburbia rather oppressive and deadening, and the strain of the mundane is beginning to fracture their marriage that gets unhappier by the day.  Frank & April need to do something quickly in order to save their marriage and possibly reclaim a little joie de vivre as well.  Whether their best laid plans actually come to fruition, well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out! Despite knowing so little about the book in terms of plot going in, I had pretty high expectations for the book, as most bloggers have raved about this novel and/or Yates’s talents.  Right of the bat I found the prose really smooth and crisp, but was impressed most by how evocative of the time and place it was capturing.  The dialogue in particular sounded how I would expect people in the ‘50s/’60s to speak, and the descriptions of Frank’s office life effectively called to mind the few episodes of Mad Men that Tony and I had watched, and this definitely tickled me.  I guess it’s only appropriate that the book would rest easily in this period, as the book was originally published in 1962, so Yates was probably just writing what came naturally given the language and parlance of the time.  Some books likely don’t age well, but here the feeling that it was from a different time was clearly working in its favor. [At this point you should probably stop reading if you’re intending to read the book, as I’ll go on to discuss more specific things that happen throughout the novel from here on out.] As for the book itself, I… have mixed feelings.  I think the trouble I have is that this book is a dark, messy, gaping maw of pain and ennui and it doesn’t, in my opinion, lend itself to clean analysis.  There’s a lot going on with just the Frank & April storyline, but then when you throw in the other strands, what with Mrs. Givens (who reminds me so much of my mother, by the way), and their friends, the Campbells, and there is a lot to take in and deal with.  It is not a happy story, because you are reading the story of people trapped in lives they don’t want… but the characters themselves, are they merely products of their circumstances, which Yates seems to suggest, or aren’t they in some part responsible for where they are and what they have become?  I think this is the issue I took with the narrative – Yates seems to indicate that the banality of the suburbs have essentially destroyed Frank & April, sapping them of their youth and pep, but I kind of felt that their path was set well before the move out of New York City.  It seems to me that April was the type of woman who would never be happy, no matter where she was situated, and Frank was never going to stop feeling like a fraud, as people proclaimed him smart early in life, only for him to be utterly unremarkable.  These were two people who probably never should have had children, but I don’t think the suburbs were the root of their problems.  The novel was incredibly introspective, as we spend most of our time in the characters’ heads, and yet I felt it odd that so much finger pointing is done but the real issues are kind of missed.  Or maybe that was the point, as the characters don’t actually have the insight to see that they are really the source of their unhappiness? Maybe it was the language, but I read a review on GoodReads that likens Revolutionary Road to Catcher in the Rye, but with adults, and I kind of feel like that’s a really good comparison.  There was a whininess to the narrative that made me think that it wouldn’t be all that odd to see a grown up Holden Caulfield stroll through this book’s pages and make himself at home.  Much of the questions that Frank & April face are the ones that I think Holden spends a good deal of time pondering over, namely what is the point to anything, and what’s with all the phonies and bores?  I don’t think that likeable characters are necessary for me to enjoy a book, but I will say that I found both April and Frank’s selfishness incredibly offputting, and for all the glib references to Freud and therapy, these are two people who would have been well served by some counseling and straight talk.  Were they forced to grow up too fast, or was their problem rooted in the fact that they staunchly refused to face up to their responsibilities and new positions? I expected this book to completely dazzle and wow me with its sweeping narrative, and on some level it did, but on some level it didn’t.  I’m not saying that Yates tells a shallow or unimportant story, just that as much as I understood the characters, I never really empathized with them.  I couldn’t fully mourn their grief and losses, because as sad as their situation is, I couldn’t help but feel they were prisoners only unto themselves.  I didn’t feel like these were good, hardworking people who just couldn’t catch a break, I felt that they were sad, miserable ones who augmented those elements wherever they found them.  True, April does try to change their lives for the better by having them move to France, and in those moments I felt a glimmer of hope for the Wheelers, but we see as soon as the plans fall through that it likely would only have been a matter of time before they became miserable overseas as well.  And obviously I could not support April’s decision at the end of the novel, and actually felt the choice was overly maudlin, perhaps because it had been so heavily foreshadowed throughout the book.  In fact, many of the “surprise” twists that occur throughout the book failed to incite me, as I saw many of them coming, and most of the action seems readily telegraphed in Part One.  I can’t really fault Yates for this, and I wouldn’t say that the characters at any point behave in unrealistic ways… it’s just the story and its message were so utterly without hope that it was like a car wreck you didn’t want to be watching (or at least I didn’t want to be!). All that said, I did think it was a meaty book with lots to ponder and hopefully lots to discuss at our next book club meeting!  I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface here with many of the issues and topics that are coiled within this book, and it’s probably one I’ll need to read again in order to better appreciate it; it is a story that appears simple at first, but there is a lot there to think about if you are willing to dig deep.  I thought Revolutionary Road quite unerringly captures a very specific time and place within its pages, and I am now looking forward to seeing the movie (I couldn’t help but see Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as April and Frank in my head while reading because I knew they had been cast in those roles!).  I do recommend the book to anyone looking for a serious, sobering read… so perhaps it might be best to wait until after the holidays to tackle this one! Rating: 4 out of 5

19 Comments

  1. I stopped reading when you told me to, because I plan to read (and watch) this next year. I pleased that you enjoyed it on the whole and that there is a lot to ponder – I like that in a book!

  2. Amy
    12/14/2009

    I think the comparison to Catcher in the Rye is very interesting and fitting. I haven’t heard it before but as soon as I read it I thought, Oh Yes! I think your assessment of Frank & April is right on the nose. I really like Yates writing and the book partly because Frank & April aren’t depicted as a wonderful couple who’ve achieved the american dream and are thrilled with life. Great review :o)

  3. 12/14/2009

    It sounds depressing! But you raise the interesting question of whether likeable characters are necessary for the enjoyment of a book. To me, they *are.* Or at least, characters who are sympathetic in some way. I can appreciate the artistic merit of a book with all unlikeable characters, but generally feel I would rather not have read it! I guess it’s because I spend time reading and ergo feel as if I spend time with the people represented by the characters, and who wants to spend time with people you don’t like?

  4. 12/14/2009

    I plan to read the book and then see the movie. It sounds like it will be thought-provoking read!

  5. 12/14/2009

    @ Jackie: Definitely a lot to contemplate here, and I think this will prompt good discussion at my next book club! I will look forward to reading your thoughts on this one in the new year!
     
    @ Amy: I totally agree about the comparison to Catcher. As soon as I read it, I felt like something that had been eluding me clicked into place. Maybe it has to do with the narrative voice of the time, but I kept hearing echoes of Salinger in Yates’s prose. I think one of the great things about this novel is how rich the characters are, and even if I felt certain things got swept to the side so that Yates could lambaste the suburbs, in a way I like that Yates doesn’t easily hand over everything for his readers, but instead makes us work for it. Sometimes leaving things ambiguous means there’s more to mull over!
     
    @ rhapsody: Clearly I can go either way on the likeable character issue, as in this book, I was not as bothered by the lack of sympathy I had for the characters, whereas in my last read, that was a real problem. I think it’s important for me to understand characters motivations, to see what makes them tick, and then see whether their responses and behavior are reasonable given what they are dealing with. And I think another critical element is that all the dark, bitterness needs to have its balance somewhere else in the novel, either with bursts of humor or perhaps a more redemptive storyline. I can’t say that this novel is ever funny or light, but I think ultimately the story is simply more sad than it is rage-inducing. A healthy dash of self-awareness would have done wonders for Frank & April, but I take it that was kind of the point.
     
    @ Kathleen: There will surely be tons for you to contemplate as you read this one – I’ll look forward to your thoughts!

  6. 12/14/2009

    I think this book would make a great bookclub/reading group choice – so much to discuss and agree/disagree on! This was the second Yates book I read this year and I found it amazing – I was worried it would “drag me down” but I actually found it had quite the opposite effect!

  7. Eva
    12/14/2009

    I knew just from reading other reviews that this one wasn’t for me. 😉 But I really enjoyed Virgin Suicides-I read it when I was like 18 and watched the movie too (it’s so pretty). I wonder if I’d enjoy it as much now!

  8. 12/14/2009

    Nice review. I’ve considered this book before but something has held me back from reading it. Comparing it with Catcher in the Rye has intrigued me though because I loved that book.

  9. 12/14/2009

    Every time I see this book mentioned I think I want to read it. Then I remember how dark everyone says it is, and I have second thoughts. I’m not sure that I want to read about such a miserable marriage.

  10. 12/15/2009

    @ Karen: I’ll be interested to see how the rest of the women in my book club respond to this book, and how they viewed Frank & April. I also wonder if the rest of Yates’s work is similarly bleak or if his other works may be somewhat more hopeful in tone…
     
    @ Eva: I read Middlesex by Eugenides last year and found it a page turner (though ultimately I’m not sure it is deserving of the Pulitzer). I haven’t seen the film version of the Virgin Suicides, but I’m definitely intrigued and expect to be entertained!
     
    @ Nicola: The similarities to Catcher are subtle, but I would say they are there. Of course this book has a wider/different scope than that novel, but it was still cool to draw some parallels between the two. If you do read this, I’ll be curious to see if you pick up on the same vibe!
     
    @ softdrink: I’m not sure “dark” is the right word to describe the book… more like “bleak”, I’d say. I think this is a book where you have to be in the right frame of mind for it as there’s pretty much no levity or lightness to the narrative. As a reader, I definitely felt like I was right there in the midst of the slooooow drawn-out decline of Frank & April’s relationship…

  11. 12/15/2009

    I just got the audio version of this and will probably be listening to it next week. It sounds so much like Yates’ Easter Parade–not in storyline but in tone–and I loved Easter Parade even though I didn’t like the characters. You took the words right out of my mouth when you said that it’s not so important to like the characters if we can see what makes them tick, and I think that’s where Yates excels. And his writing is so good. I don’t mind a bleak story, as long as I’m given something to chew on.

  12. 12/16/2009

    I listened to the audio version of this and actually liked the book. I have to agree with SAD though, and I decided against watching the movie version.

    Great review on this one; thanks

  13. 12/16/2009

    I’m not sure this one is for me, but I’m intrigued all the same!

  14. 12/17/2009

    @ Teresa: I recall that you were a fan of Easter Parade, so I think you will be pleased with Revolutionary Road in much the same way – the characters aren’t likable, but Yates is great at creating an ambiance for his readers (or listeners, in your case). You will certainly have lots to chew on! Look forward to reading your thoughts!
     
    @ diane: I wouldn’t say I disliked this book, just that I’m conflicted about it. And not because I don’t think it’s a good book, but just because some of the ideas are ones that I’m not sure that I agree with… I don’t recall the trailers for the film, but I wonder if they conveyed how bleak it would be? I think they were billing it as a sweeping romance because Leo & Kate were reuniting on the screen…
    &nsbp;
    @ Rebecca: I am not sure that you will like this one, as it does seem quite the departure from what you tend to read and enjoy. It’s a good book, to be sure, but no book will work for every person!

  15. Both In Cold Blood and The Virgin Suicides are amazing books; I reread The Virgin Suicides periodically (as it’s so short), loved the film and was disappointed by Middlesex,

    I fully intend to read Revolutionary Road in 2010. I watched the film -I very rarely watch the film before reading the book but I made an exception- and thought it very well done; it was emotionally fraught and April and Frank destroyed one another in their very lifelike arguments.

  16. 12/17/2009

    @ Claire: If you liked the movie (though I haven’t seen it), then I think you will find the book very powerful and moving. The arguments you describe are all there on the page, where they may be even more painful!

    Also, glad to hear that you enjoyed ICB and Virgin Suicides – I look forward to reading both of them… perhaps in 2010!

  17. 12/17/2009

    Very awesome review. I felt much the same about the Wheeler’s as you did and felt that they were much more attuned to how different they were from the rest of society, while really being exactly the same. I thought some of the fights they had were terrible to witness and that along with their fundamental unsuitability for each other theirs was a very depressing marriage to be enmeshed with. I don’t think I really liked either of them very much, but they way in which the book was written definitely pulled me in and kept me rooted in the story. There really is so much going on in this book, so many issues and problems to be discussed, that I think this book will make an excellent conversational piece at your book club meeting.

  18. 05/03/2010

    I saw the movie y’day and remembered that I wanted to reread your review again 🙂

    From what I’ve read from your review, it sounds like the movie is quite true to the book.

    It was an awesome movie with some great acting by both (although Leo did look a little too young), but you should catch it sometime.

    I am not so sure that I am going to read the book because it feels like I already know most of the answers (and also I don’t want to get depressed twice)

  19. 05/03/2010

    @ Nishita: I actually did watch the film with my book club; I thought it was a fairly accurate adaptation of the book, but I did think the book was a hundred times richer than the film. It’s just such an intensely psychological novel, based so much on the internal life, I think it’s hard to really capture that in film. Sam Mendes does a great job, but I did feel the book was better.

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