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 Ophelia, 1 More Chapter, Book Bath, Telecommuter Talk, Bibliophile by the Sea, Kiss a Cloud, Sasha and the Silverfish, Vulpes Libris, Steph and Tony Investigate.