Revolutionary Road (audio)

When does settling down mean settling for less than your dreams? Must following your dreams mean irresponsibility? And how many of our choices are governed by our own desires, and how many are driven by societal expectations? Does different mean dysfunctional? These are all questions raised in one way or another in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, which I just listened to on audio.

I imagine most of you are familiar with the premise of the novel, so I’ll be brief with my summary. Frank and April Wheeler look like the ideal couple. They’re smart, attractive, and talented. They met and fell in love in New York and now live in a sweet suburban Connecticut home with their two kids, Jennifer and Michael. Frank commutes to New York to work at a job that pays the bills but that he doesn’t love while April stays home with the children. They have dinner parties with the neighbors, and April has a starring role in local community theatre production of The Petrified Forest.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that all isn’t well for the Wheelers. The book opens with the disastrous opening night of The Petrified Forest. When the theatrical performances fail, so does the Wheelers’ performance at being content. April concocts a plan to move to Paris so that they can experience real life, and Frank appears to support her. But as April puts the plan in motion, circumstances conspire to make the plan look less feasible and less attractive.

As I noted in my review of The Easter Parade, Yates’s forte is in showing the darker side of ordinary life. I imagine everyone has moments of discontentment or fleeting feelings of superiority that usually mask equally feelings of inferiority. Sometimes those moments last longer than we’d like, certainly, but Yates’s characters dwell in those moments. They’re always grasping for something more or wallowing in the fact that life hasn’t met their expectations. It’s not hard to sympathize with Frank and April’s desire to achieve their dreams. But is there a time when the better course is to find new dreams? Or is doing so the road to discontentment? And then what happens when you and your partner have different dreams?

It’s easy to read Revolutionary Road as an indictment of suburban life, but I’m not sure that it’s that simple. Sure, suburbia proves to be a prison for the Wheelers, particularly April, but is suburbia itself at fault for that? Is the problem really the expectation that all proper people would choose that sort of life? Are there alternatives? Not all of the characters seem as miserable as the Wheelers, although they also aren’t blissfully happy. But what actually constitutes happiness? This book raises a lot of questions about life and the choices we make. None of the answers are obvious, and they’re all still relevant more than 40 years after the book’s original publication.

For the most part, Yates doesn’t force one reading of the characters upon the reader. He just tells you what the Wheelers and their neighbors think and how they act upon their thoughts and feelings. There is one point, late in the novel, where he does seem to be trying to psychoanalyze April, finding the roots of her unhappiness in her unstable childhood. In The Easter Parade, he does something similar when he says that his main characters’ problems started with their parents’ divorce. In that case, I thought it was an interesting theory, given when the book is set and written. In Revolutionary Road, this attempt to explain seemed like a misstep. Yates provided enough information about April early on to enable readers to draw their own conclusions. The explanations that come late in the book felt to me like ham-fisted moralizing, and I could have done without it.

Otherwise, however, I appreciated the audiobook. Yates’s prose is well-suited to the audio form. His descriptive writing is as stunning here as I found it to be in The Easter Parade. He’s wonderful at picking up tiny details and minute gestures and using them to reveal the characters’ feelings. Unfortunately, I don’t have any quotes to share because I listened to it and don’t have a print copy; however, several of the reviewers linked below included quotes in their reviews, so do take a look.

See other reviews at Incurable Logophilia, The Book Lady’s Blog, Asylum, Jenny’s Books, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Save Ophelia1 More Chapter, Book Bath, Telecommuter TalkBibliophile by the Sea, Kiss a CloudSasha and the Silverfish, Vulpes Libris, Steph and Tony Investigate.

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17 Responses to Revolutionary Road (audio)

  1. Rachel says:

    I loved Revolutionary Road, and the film of it too. Yates is a brilliant writer and his exploration of the darker side of the soul is, as you say, still very pertinent today. What a wonderful review; it’s reminded me that I need to read more Yates.

  2. Nicole says:

    Great review and analysis. I’ll be reading this one a little later in the year and I can’t wait to get to it even though I have seen the movie. In just skimming the pages of the book I know that I will enjoy his writing.

  3. Steph says:

    I thought Yates’s writing was superb at evoking the time and place he was writing about, so I definitely appreciated that when I read this book. But as you say, many of the questions he poses are still relevant today, so I see why people are bandying this about as one of those classics of literature.

    I think one of the major elements of this book is actually taking a look at what happens when our dreams about our life don’t match up with the reality of it. All of the characters in the novel have had different expectations of what their lives would be as compared to the lives their living, and they all seem to struggle (some more successfully than others) with this issue. I kind of felt that part of Yates’s point is that few if any ever dream of the suburban life yet at some point, that becomes the default… your choices are to either conform and trade in old dreams for the more conventional and staid, or to rebel but at the risk of being continually dissatisfied nonetheless. I’m not sure we can point to the suburbs as being the cause of Frank & April’s malaise so much as it’s a symptom… but whatever the case, I definitely sensed that Yates was not a fan!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph: I agree that the heart of this book has to do with our dreams and expectations and how we cope when things don’t go as we hoped.

      And good points about suburbia as the default, not the dream. Yates certainly doesn’t seem to think anyone actively wants that life. I wonder if the changing times has changed that, though. As families have gotten more unstable, are the white picket fence and the 2 kids becoming a dream for some? And how would Yates react to that, especially given that the most discontented person of all in this book had the most unstable childhood? Hmmm….

  4. Ann says:

    Somehow I have managed to completely miss out on this, either as a book or as a film. Can I add another to the tbr pile? I think not at the moment but It’s under advisement if you think I should.

    • Teresa says:

      Ann: As much as I loved this book and Yates’s Easter Parade, I’m reluctant to recommend it to anyone to whom it doesn’t immediately appeal just because it’s so very dark.

  5. Sasha says:

    Reading this, well–I’m thinking I should reread this again. Or, at least, read the parts I like, haha. This is a plan that might just prove to be detrimental to whatever flimsy reading plans I have for this year.

    But I really love this book. I catch myself using this as a point of comparison to all the settled-suburbia books I read. I mean, that “review” of mine was an all-around fumble; there’s more I want to say about this book, which sucks because it feels like whatever thought and sentiments I have with Revolutionary Road lean toward the ineffable.

    Still, I’m hoping I’ll get to read all of his books this 2010. :]

    • Teresa says:

      Sasha: Oh no–read the Yates you haven’t read. I have to know what to pick up next when I get around to reading more! Also you might be interested to know that Rachel (from Book Snob; the first commenter on this post) just said today on her blog that she’s going to read through the Yates she has on hand. So Yates is definitely getting a mini-resurgence beyond Revolutionary Road.

  6. JaneGS says:

    Subject matter sounds bleak but the writing sounds magnificent.

    >picking up tiny details and minute gestures and using them to reveal the characters’ feelings.

    Sounds elegant. Thanks for the review.

  7. Jenny says:

    Love your review! I love the exploration of freedom and prisons – Frank and April make their choices freely, but they make them for such idiotic reasons, and they end up feeling completely imprisoned. Bleak, but interesting.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny: Yes, they did build their own prisons, mostly by just following the path of least resistance and then finally realizing they ended up where they never wanted to go.

  8. rebeccareid says:

    I’ve seen the book cover around because of the movie. I’ll have to find the book sometime too!

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca: The movie has definitely sparked more interest in Yates, which I happen to think is a good thing because I wouldn’t have discovered him otherwise :-)

  9. Pingback: sunday salon || A Resurgence of Richard Yates « Sasha & The Silverfish

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