Revolutionary Road

revolutionary-roadRevolutionary Road is Richard Yates’s debut novel from 1961. It is about Frank and April Wheeler, a couple of Connecticut suburbanites living on Revolutionary Hill Estates, and their mostly half-hearted and nervous attempts to break free from the banal rut they find themselves in.

I have to tell you that after reading Between the World and Me, I was not in the right mood for this book. Whiny white people with whiny white-people problems! Frank and April are extremely unpleasant characters. They are confident that they are much more intelligent and evolved than anyone else they know; much more sophisticated, much more politically aware, far less boring and stifling. How do they prove this, to themselves or anyone else? They say it frequently, usually over a lot of drinks. Frank’s way of showing that he isn’t tied to his job like those other schmucks is to choose a job he doesn’t like and doesn’t work at. Well! That’ll teach ’em!

April, of course, is even worse off. How is she supposed to lift herself above the common run? She participates in community theater, but it’s a complete disaster. She’s too smart to pander to Frank’s vanity for an entire life together. So… Paris! Yes! They’ll move to Paris, and April will get a job and support Frank while he figures out what he wants to do with all his talents besides his despised office job. The only problem with this, of course, is that the notion terrifies Frank (not that he would tell April that.) He isn’t really sure that he has any talents; he doesn’t want to live off his wife (he has hilarious visions of her coming home, polished and competent, while he sits in his bathrobe.) So he begins to undermine her, and everything begins to crumble.

I’ve said that I wasn’t in the right mood for Revolutionary Road. But I admit I was eventually pulled in. Yates writes beautiful prose, and the image of these two people raging at each other in a silent subdivision is compelling. (The most helpless people here are of course their two small bewildered children.) There are major plot points here that don’t work — the Wheelers have a realtor who brings over her “insane” son for company, and he tells them “home truths” that cause big cracks in their marriage. That’s a trope I could do without. And Yates can be a little heavy-handed with the symbolism, like the way Frank never completes the walkway from the door to the sidewalk. Yes, thank you, I understood that they are not getting anywhere. But still — Yates brings important issues in more subtly, like the war, affairs, abortions, the nascent importance of psychotherapy, and the yearning for “something more.” It wasn’t my favorite book this year, but I’m glad I read it. Have any of you read this, or seen the movie?

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20 Responses to Revolutionary Road

  1. I have this in the TBR and have been meaning to read it for ages. I always imagine it will be a more subtle Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf! I think I’ll leave it until I’m in the right mood.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s not a more subtle Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (especially since that play is very subtle!) It does involve a terrible marriage, and a lot of drinking, but that’s about the only similarity. For one thing, the characters have nothing but contempt for each other.

  2. Hi, Jenny. I have the book, but haven’t yet had a chance to read it. I have, however, seen the movie, and I have to say that the way Hollywood portrayed it was a plus this time, because it was an indictment rather than simply an exhibition of all those “silly white people’s problems” you mention. And I had no idea the book was so old! I actually thought it was a piece of retro writing from only a few years back. I guess that’s the feel the movie gave to it. It was so grim as a movie that I can’t say it was my favorite in any category, but it was very powerful.

    • Jenny says:

      I’d be interested in the differences between the film and the novel, especially since there are so few modern movies (that I’m aware of, anyway) that treat abortion seriously.

      • Maybe it was just where my own sympathies lay, but I felt that the movie was slanted onto the sympathetic side of the female lead. It was a sort of feminist interpretation. Maybe it was necessarily so with the subject, but by the end, one felt that that was where the whole thing had been leading all along, and April just seemed a bit naïve in retrospect rather than privileged or etc.

  3. When I read this book, I was thrilled at the idea that this family would move to France. That book would have been an outstanding comedy. Shame they didn’t.

    You are not the first person to use such a description, but I did not find much “beautiful prose” in Yates. Mostly pretty ordinary prose, I thought. Just to stick with American contemporaries – less energetic than Bellow or The Sot-Weed Factor, less visual-linguistic interest than Updike, less psychological insight than The Moviegoer, less everything than, you know, Pale Fire. Less subtle than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

    • Jenny says:

      Frank’s mental image of what it would be like to move to France was almost as comic as their actual moving to France would have been, don’t you think?

      I like to be generous to my books when I can, and I can find beautiful prose in Yates. There are some really nice descriptions of Connecticut suburbia, and a couple of good comic set pieces. I don’t disagree that he’s second-tier, nor did I enjoy the book much (as I said, I did not approach it with arms open.) But it wasn’t terrible, especially for a debut novel. I’m not sad I read it.

    • I may have enjoyed the novel more than you did. But second-tier, oh yes. Was the “rediscovery” somehow Franzen-related? I have forgotten, thankfully.

      Frank’s image of France was only a teaser for the better novel that was not written. I wanted the joy of seeing that image shattered against France itself. But that would have vitiated Yates’s important point about the low quality of community theater in commuter Connecticut.

      To the question below – Chekhov aside, Katherine Anne Porter is a good answer.

  4. Gubbinal says:

    I really like the book and the writing style. While I find the novels of Yates to be strong and compelling, he is at his peak in his short stories. It’s almost as if the short story is just about the right length to spend with his damaged and damaging characters and the way he makes us see parts of ourselves in them.

  5. Linda says:

    I read it several years ago and don’t remember it very well, though I recall liking it quite a bit. I just went back and read my blog post about it, and apparently I didn’t like it terribly well while reading it (except for the nice writing) and likened it to watching an accident happening in very slow motion. But I wrote that the ending was quite satisfying and that I was glad I read it. It’s so funny that now I only remember the good things about it, but I guess that’s how memory works, and that’s why I have a blog to remind myself about these things :)

    • Jenny says:

      “An accident in slow motion” — nice phrase! Except that I’m not at all sure it’s an accident. Frank and April seem to be quite intelligent enough to be doing all this out of malice rather than accidentally. Again, it’s the children I feel sorriest for.

  6. The movie depressed the hell out of me, which is why I’ve never felt drawn to read the book! I do love Kate Winslet, though, which is why I watched it. I have a hard time reading a book once I’ve seen the movie first.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, it’s not very cheerful, though it certainly has its moments. I have a feeling Kate Winslet would make a better April than April did.

      Interesting that you don’t like reading the book after you’ve seen the movie. Why is that, do you think?

      • I think it’s because I just end up seeing the actors’ faces in my mind as I’m reading the book. And then there’s also the whole plot spoiled thing. But I do enjoy reading a book first and THEN seeing the movie, just to see how they compare.

  7. Stefanie says:

    What a coincidence that I should read your review today after I have read a couple six degrees memes that all start with Revolutionary Road. I thought you were doing the meme too! I have not read the book or seen the movie but it does sound rather sad even if well done. And I can totally understand how it was not the right book to follow Between the World and Me!

    • Jenny says:

      I hadn’t seen those memes! Yes, I honestly think the main reason I didn’t like the book much is that I wasn’t in the right place to read it. I just couldn’t take it seriously. When I was in high school, I read The Grapes of Wrath and then followed it with The Great Gatsby. I was furious at these shallow people Fitzgerald portrayed who knew nothing about poverty or poor people and didn’t even care. I was totally in the wrong place to read it and loathed it as a result. It took me years to read it again and appreciate it.

  8. Hahahaha, I can only imagine the effect of reading this straight after the Coates book! I read it with the lowest of expectations and was pleasantly surprised. I am not a fan of the “Suburbs = Intellectual Death” literary genre, but I liked Yates’s writing, in the end.

    I also watched the movie on an airplane and fell asleep for part of it, but didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep, so I came away with the impression that it had been a somewhat anodyne adaptation. Turns out I missed the entire coathanger abortion bit.

    • Jenny says:

      That made me laugh so hard. I haven’t seen the movie, so I didn’t know how much of the book they included, but if you thought they left that out, it would definitely look a bit cleaned-up.

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