11 July, 2009

'Revolutionary Road' - Richard Yates

To read Revolutionary Road is to be reminded that brilliance as a writer does not guarantee longevity. Yates' novel is a splendid one, yet it was out of print before Sam Mendes adapted it, and cast his glowing wife Kate Winslet as the acerbic April Wheeler, a woman who procures a drastic end to her angered marriage to Frank.

This is not April's story, however. This is the story of a man trapped into the social expectations of the affluent, post-war America of the fifties. The Wheelers' revolution is to decide to move to Paris where, more shockingly, April will be the main money-earner as Frank endeavours to determine what it is he wants to do with his intelligence, and his good fortune to have been born that most wonderful of things, a man (a title both bestowed on and withdrawn from him by April).

The backgrounds of both characters tell us that they have never been offered, or felt comfortable offering, unmitigated love. Their marriage, while initially affectionate and passionate, is a practical thing. The great, unspoken fear many of us harbour comes true for them, as they grow to hate exactly the aspects of one another that originally drew them together.

Both the Wheelers and their neighbours the Campbells have children, but they are mainly silenced within the story. Shep Campbell at one point walks through his house and is 'halfway across the living room before he realised he had four sons'. Procreation has its own associations with both the genders: a man is emasculated if he cannot bear children; a woman is too often limited by her ability to do so. Both these social constructs are played out in April and Frank's relationships to their children in the novel.

Yates demonstrates an extraordinary connection to words. On just the fifth page, I knew how rewarding this book would be when he described the atmosphere of the amateur dramatics rehearsals April attended:

At first their reheasals had been held on Saturdays -- always, it seemed, on the kind of windless February or March afternoon when the sky is white, the trees are black, and the brown fields and hummocks of the earth lie naked and tender between curds of shrivelled snow.

The language is very much that of a certain style of American literature, where characters drawl things like 'Well, I guess that really is a whole lotta nonsense', with the last word pronounced with equal stress on each syllable. It is Gatsbyesque, but the mirror here is in front of more prosaic social issues: how and where we live, where and why we work, whether or not we love those we have chosen to share our lives with. It indirectly questions what America gained in coming out the 'victor' from its role in the great wars, and how it has squandered it - topics that still resonate, and will continue to for some time.


  1. I cannot express how much I loved this book and how disappointed I was with the movie remake. I was in the middle of the Cinque Terre and I couldn't put it down, despite the beautiful scenery around me! Jetsetting Joyce

  2. Hi Joyce. I understand your love for the book (and I've walked the Cinque Terre so I know how high your praise is!)

    I saw the film first, and thought it was a provoking exploration of male entrapment (hijacked somewhat by Kate Winslet's presence), but when I read the book I realised the film's themes only skimmed the territory that Yates covered. It is a brilliant work.