Monday, October 25, 2010

Hopelessness for all: a book review

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is one of the bleakest novels I've ever read. Most of you are familiar with the movie, no doubt. I'm told it got bad reviews, but I liked it and immediately added the book to my reading list.

Frank and April Wheeler live in the Connecticut suburbs of New York. Frank works for a company that sells business machines. April, who studied dramatics in college, keeps house and cares for two young children. The Wheelers know their lives are as colorless as a blancmange. They scorn the suburbs and mock people who have nothing better to discuss than their barbecue pits, yet for all their awareness, are they any better than their neighbors?

Revolutionary Road hurts worst the people who are most likely to read it: people like myself who turn up our noses at the suburbs and conformity. How many times have I made a denigrating comment about the suburbs, shuddered while driving through a new development, waxed nostalgic about our boho lives on Buffalo's West Side (now called "Elmwood Village" by realtors trying to capitalize on upscale America's distaste for the suburbs), felt smug about my 100 year old house that's within walking distance of downtown? Charlottesville itself is a repository of Revolutionary Road types: a place of people who want to live "in the city" where every scrap of urbanity is celebrated, painted photographed, and written up by The Washington Post. A place where the middle bit of Main St. has been designated "Midtown" and where signs direct tourists to a "Warehouse District." Charlottesville is like a suburb of the suburbs, where people flee from all over the US to be seen at the farmer's market or sipping coffee in little cafes. (Not Starbucks, never Starbucks. Tourists or people from the suburbs who don't know any better go to Starbucks.) The carefully staged urban "lifestyle" of Charlottesville is even more artificial than the suburbs its residents sneer at.

So I squirmed a bit, reading Revolutionary Road, but then I realized that Richard Yates is not so much condemning these people as he is pitying them. Would April and Frank's life had gotten any better if they had actually gone to Paris or would the same humdrum annoyances of marriage and family life pursue them there? If they'd moved to Park Avenue instead of Connecticut, would their lives have been brilliant and interesting, or would they have been caught up in a social round of people as dull, in their own way, as the suburbanites with their lawnmowers and barbecue pits?

The suburbs aren't the problem, life itself is the problem. People say words that mean nothing, obey the conventions of society and never, ever reveal what they really think about anything. The only honest person in the book, John Givings, the realtor's son, has been diagnosed clinically insane. Most people, such as Helen Givings the realtor, have their little ways of fooling themselves. Her platitudes: "Isn't this cozy? It's wonderful just to let yourself unwind after a hard day," cover a misery that is possibly even deeper even than April and Frank's. The irony of Richard Yates' world is that the people who have the wit to recognize the soul-numbing quality of conventional society, are the ones who are most miserable. The only person in the book who might claim to be content is Mr. Givings who can turn his hearing aid off and be unaware of the world.


  1. The movie depressed my husband so much he barely spoke for three days. Now I feel like I should read the book but I'm afraid to!

  2. My sentiments about Charlottesville exactly...even as I pat myself on the back for my impending move downtown I cringe at the "Warehouse District" signs and then feel like a hypocrite.

  3. Now I want to watch the movie at least...I like the point he's bringing up: it's not where you're living, it's the complacency.

  4. I'm not sure I'm in the mood for hopelessness right now, but it will definitely go on my list of future reads.

  5. Exactly! It doesn't matter where you live. It matters how you live. You can have nice neighbors anywhere. You can have friends and a good social life anywhere. You can have meaning in your life anywhere. No one way of life is more "authentic" than another.