I was excited about Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. It seemed like a rather important book, and many imporant people (several of which are quoted on the back) claimed that this book was one of the most significant in the second half of the 20th century. They even made a movie of it in 2008 starring Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio, and everyone knows Leo can afford to pick and choose his projects. It must be good.
And it was. Many already know the story, but for those who don’t, Frank and April Wheeler—a young, intellectual couple with high ideals—are living their lives in a pleasant Connecticut suburb in complete misery. Both used to have high aspirations and impossible dreams, but weakness, a few fatal flaws and complete chance have thrown them into parenthood, housewifery and a dull job “in the city.” Frank and April try to get on as best they can, fooling themselves into believing they are above their circumstances. But when both realize their lives have spiraled out of their control—when they realize they have become just like everyone else—the begin losing hold on the already slippery grasp they have on each other.
Along the way, readers are treated to speeches against the passionless existence found in the American suburbs. Frank is the main narrator, and is usually the one lashing out against the Way Things Are. It is these diatribes that have made Revolutionary Road the enduring work of social commentary it still is today, and it is these thoughts that are left bouncing round the reader’s head. Am I really satisfied with my job? Does this job leave me feeling fulfilled, or empty? Why do we spend so much time with meaningless small talk, when we should be discussing politics, literature, theater, philosphy? The suburbs are an intellectual wasteland, Yates seems to be saying, leaving its inhabitants neutered of their passion and curiosity. If we’re smart, we would kill ourselves early (as I kept expecting Frank and April to do at every turn).
Along these lines, Yates makes his point well and I give him credit for calling attention to what is (or was) an interesting social problem. This isn’t to say that things haven’t changed since the 1950’s (when the story takes place). This is 2010, after all. While I was growing up, teachers and parents encouraged me and my peers to do what we love. Young people aren’t afraid to follow their passions and search for careers outside the traditional parameters that may have governed our parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Parents also hug their kids more than they did in 1950, meaning Frank and April’s bitter childhoods would surely have been different had they been a child of the 80’s. And so while I recognized Frank and April’s problems, I also read Revolutionary Road knowing that things don’t have to be that miserable. Fifty years after the Wheelers moved to suburban Connecticut, things aren’t the distopia they used to be.
Frank and April also face countless marital problems throughout the book, a sign that both are losing their grasp on whatever keeps them sane. And while impassioned diatribes against suburbia didn’t phase me, reading their fight scenes was frightening. Here we can see Yates’s mastery of human nature and dialogue: the fights are disturbingly realistic, giving us an example of what happens when love not only falls apart, but rips, tears, cuts, burns, and takes away your will to live. I’d like to continue thinking things are better in 2010—what with effective birth control, divorce as a socially acceptable option, and young people marrying later in their 20’s and 30’s. But we all know these marriages exist, and Revolutionary Road gives us a frightening portrait of what could happen to any marriage behind closed doors.
In addition, Yates is a master stylist, and his beautiful writing makes the book worth reading all on its own. Yates is a quiet writer, but he is perceptive and able to paint chilling portraits of the human psyche with only a few words. Now, I’m not sure if I’m completely up to watching the film adaptation (emotionally, it’s a tough book), but I’d definitely reccomend this book to anyone…literally, anyone. It may be considered a “classic,” but everyone should experience Yates’s writing if only to know what good really means. In addition, its themes are universal and while it may have been written 50 years ago, the entire book feels fresh and new.
In the meantime, check out the trailer to the movie, if only to get a feel for the Wheelers’ desperation. Then, see if you can read the book and imagine anyone other than Leo as Frank Wheeler. I couldn’t.