Until 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.