The Easter Parade

easterparadeUntil the release of the film Revolutionary Road last year, I hadn’t heard of Richard Yates. The many reviews of the book and the film got me curious about him, so when his later novel, The Easter Parade, was offered through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program, I put my name in the hat and won a copy.

Sarah and Emily Grimes’s parents divorced when they were young, and according to the narrator, the divorce is where their trouble began. Sarah marries young, has three sons, and makes a few abortive attempts at writing about her family. Emily goes to college, has a career in writing and editing trade and advertising copy that merely pays the bills, goes through one man after another, and makes a few abortive attempts at writing about her own experiences. Both women seem to stand for the two strands of femininity that emerged in the 20th century–the subservient wife and the liberated women. And both of these strands have a shadow side–a bleak, ugly shadow side.

Although this book is sometimes described as the story of the two sisters, the focus is mostly on Emily. We see her disengage from her family and get into a series of impossible relationships. She has many lovers, but her relationships are transient, and she never seems to experience a meeting of souls. Sarah’s different, but equally bleak, story seems to be there to provide contrast, perhaps to make it clear that domesticity is not the root of all happiness and that settling down would not necessarily be the answer for Emily. Unhappy women are unhappy in many different ways.

So why are these particular women so unhappy? The narrator blames the divorce of the girls’ parents for their troubles, which I find interesting, given that the book was published in 1976, and their parents would have divorced in 1930, before divorce was as common as it is today. Today, divorce alone would seem like an insufficient reason for the women’s troubles, but what about in 1930, or even in 1976? And why would two women from the same family cope so differently? Yates’s characterization of the sisters is such that even their most illogical and frustrating actions make a certain kind of twisted sense.

I was very impressed with Yates’s beautifully spare writing style. His descriptions are clear and precise, and not a word is wasted. Here, for example, is his description of the girls’ mother:

Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called “flair.” She pored over fashion magazines, dressed tastefully and tried many ways of fixing her hair, but her eyes remained bewildered and she never quite learned to keep her lipstick between the borders of her mouth, which gave her an air of dazed and vulnerable uncertainty.

At times, Yates’s economical prose style does make the book move a little too quickly. It covers 40 years in only 230 pages, and I didn’t always have a clear sense of how much time was passing. A few times, I was startled to learn Emily’s age or realize that she had been in a relationship for more than a couple of months, but this is a minor flaw, if it’s even a flaw at all. The passing of time does work that way in life sometimes.

The back cover of the Picador edition mentions that the two sisters “finally reach for some semblance of renewal,” but don’t believe it. This is no inspirational story of people who find a way to persevere through the challenges of life. It’s about the ugliness and bitterness that reside in so many ordinary people. It’s about hopes that never come to fruition and the horror of mediocrity. It’s a great book, but not a hopeful one. I’m glad I read it; there are scenes that will stick with me, and I’ll probably read more Yates in the future, but I’d only recommend it to readers who don’t mind coming face-to-face with the darkness in ordinary life.

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10 Responses to The Easter Parade

  1. Steph says:

    I haven’t read any Yates, though I would like to read Revolutionary Road given how well the book seems to be reviewed by the book community. But this one sounds good too, and I really like the little excerpt you showcased in your review. I can do dark fiction, but I like to know that’s what I’m getting myself into!

  2. Priscilla says:

    Oh, I got this one through LT Early Reviewers also, but I haven’t read it yet. I skimmed through your review sort of “lalalalala…I am reading but not really reading” so I won’t be too influenced. ;) I’ll come back when I’ve read it and leave a proper comment.

  3. Jenny says:

    This sounds a bit grim for me, and the film looked as if it would make me want to do myself in. I don’t mind dark or unhappy — even unhappy endings — but relentlessly, humorlessly grim is another story. Hmmm.

  4. Teresa says:

    Steph: I figured this book would be sort of dark, but the back cover did lead me to expect some light at the end of the tunnel, but the few glimmers of light that appear come from oncoming trains. That doesn’t bother me at all, but I know it would bother plenty of other people, some of whom would be fooled by the back cover.

    Priscilla: I look forward to seeing what you think of it.

    Jenny: As I think you know, it would be well-nigh impossible for a book (or film) to be too grim for me. It’s the combination of grimness and exploitativeness that I can’t cope with–but the characters here bring a lot of their troubles onto themselves so it’s doesn’t feel expliotative or cruel. But any hope that appears in this story is dashed pretty quickly.

  5. Steph says:

    Teresa, is your light at the end of the tunnel = train a reference to Buffy? If so, I heartily approve! ;)

    • Teresa says:

      Steph: Ha! I have watched so much Buffy that sometimes Joss-speak just seeps into my lexicon without my realizing it, which was the case here.

  6. Pingback: Review: The Easter Parade « If you can read this

  7. Bina says:

    “The horror of mediocrity”, I love that! It’s really a brilliantly hopeless and bleak story, perhaps not for everyone, but perfect for those who love dark fiction.

  8. Michelle says:

    Jenny, if there’s one thing Yates is not, it’s humorless. Even the line quoted above “…never quite learned to keep the lipstick between the borders of her mouth” gives a taste of his humor.

    In RR the movie, the scene where Frank composes ad copy “What you have. What you need. What you want. That’s inventory control.” etc. Or when poor Frank tries to come up with the right thing to say to prickly April “Well, I guess it wasn’t a triumph, or anything” or when Frank and April agree that crazy John Givings is the only one who gets what they’re talking about — crazy John Givings himself, talking about whethere threatening his mother with a coffee table constitutes a criminal or civil matter…

    There is no shortage of wit in Yates!

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