Fiction. Literature. Romance. Historical Fiction. HTML: In the hopeful 1950s, Frank and April Wheeler appear to be a model couple: bright, beautiful, talented, with two young children and a starter home in the suburbs. Perhaps they married too young and started a family too early. Maybe Frank's job is dull. And April never saw herself as a housewife. Yet they have always lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. But now that certainty is about to crumble.With heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity, Richard Yates shows how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves. From the Trade Paperback edition..
The Wheelers spend enormous energy keeping up appearances, striving to maintain their image as a perfect family. Frank has a job in the city, as a cog in the wheel of Knox Business Machines. Frank is a master at avoiding work, and is astonished and somewhat uneasy when one of his more hastily-produced promotional pieces attracts the attention of higher-ups. Yates brilliantly satirizes the 1950s workplace, with its complex hierarchy and endless paper-pushing:
As he did each day (or rather on the days when he bothered with the IN basket, for there were many days when he left it alone) he tried first to see how many papers he could get rid of without actually reading their contents. Some could be thrown away, others could be almost as rapidly disposed of by scrawling "What about this?" in their margins, with his initials, and sending them to Bandy ... but the danger here was that the same papers might come back in a few days marked "Do" from Bandy ... A safer course was to mark a thing "File" for Mrs. Jorgenson and the girls, after the briefest possible glance had established that it wasn't of urgent importance ... (p. 89-90)
April, meanwhile, manages the household and minds the children. To friends and neighbors, they appear to have achieved the American Dream. And then, April decides they should move to Europe, where Frank can "find himself" while April puts her administrative skills to use in the role of family breadwinner. Their friends are astonished and skeptical, and begin to find the Wheelers increasingly boring as they become focused on the next stage in their lives.
And then things begin to unravel. I'll avoid spoilers, but suffice to say just when you think it can't get any worse, it does. Frank and April's relationship takes a dive of epic proportions, with widespread consequences. And when I suddenly saw where the whole thing was going, I was both riveted and deeply saddened. Yates' writing was just as effective in capturing the emotional turmoil of these two characters as he was in his satire. Highly recommended.
Revolutionary Road is a devastating look at the disintegration of a marriage. It is also an indictment of a certain way of living, perhaps even of a whole culture. Enough dirt has been flung on the idea of the ‘American Dream’ for me to desist from doing so, but Richard Yates clearly had serious problems with the superficial, materialistic culture of the 50s, enough so to write a searing account of one couple and their hopeless attempts to escape the pitfalls of middle America.
Frank and April Wheeler are upper-middle class suburbanites living lives of quiet desperation. Frank works for the same company his father worked for, ostensibly as a lark, or until he can find a better job, but really it seems because he is haunted by a feeling of inadequacy towards his father. April has, by default, become a suburban housewife, looking after the Wheelers’ two young children. Both Frank and April are intelligent, attractive people, and believe that they are somehow superior to their neighbours and friends. They hatch a scheme to emigrate to France, where April will work while Frank takes time to ‘find himself’ (a concept that is never fully explained by the Wheelers, probably because they hardly know what this means themselves). The best laid plans of mice and men, however… April falls pregnant again, while Frank commits adultery, and the plot heads towards a harrowing conclusion.
I could employ any amount of clichés to describe the book (e.g. ‘it packs an emotional punch’, etc.), but they would all ultimately be reductive. Although the book does pack a punch, it is almost more of a sucker punch than anything else. Like all good tragedy, one expects things to come to a terrible end, but Yates manages to make the Wheelers’ traumatic story personal in its impact. The book is written with tremendous force, and contains insights about modern life that are still very much applicable to contemporary society. One almost wishes that the things Yates writes weren’t true, but one must ultimately admit the honesty of his critique.
Besides the ending of the novel (scenes which I won’t give away) the parts that affected me the most were those involving John Givings. He is the son of the Wheelers’ estate agent, and also an inmate in an insane asylum. He used to be a mathematician, so his parents take him to visit the Wheelers, as he will supposedly be able to relate to this intelligent, sophisticated couple. But things do not work out the way the Givingses imagined, as John treats his parents with contempt, while forming a strange rapport with the Wheelers. These scenes are excellent. They show the absurdity that often lies behind the notion of institutionalisation (John finds his whole situation ridiculous), while still showing insanity without hiding its traumatic aspects.
The Wheelers’ struggle to be something more than they are ends up destroying them. Perhaps we are all condemned to ‘vaulting ambition’, and this cautionary tale warns us against reaching too far. And yet, there is irony here as well. Richard Yates himself tried to grasp success through writing, yet remained a fairly obscure entity until recently. Maybe he could appreciate the Wheelers’ tale more than most. In any case, this is a wonderful, sad novel, perhaps the best evocation of suburban malaise I have ever read.
The book is full of movie-like scenes of cocktail parties and interactions at "the office." The best aspect of this book is the dialogue. The sections dealing with Frank and April arguing or seeking power over one another are really well-written.
Basically my issue with the book is that a lot of the critiques and events seem really obvious and played-out. However, given the year the book was written, I concede that at that time it may have fairly scandalous...I just think the current reader already knows that the "American Dream" is a huge fallacy.
This book, while beautifully rendered, was at times painful to read. What emerged for me was a fierce portrayal of emotional upheaval between two people, both striving for control over the other. The sentiments of utter nastiness between Frank and April were both devastating to read and depressing to contemplate. Don't get me wrong though, this was an exceptional book. The ability of the author to make me wince in discomfort was amazing, and the larger issues housed within this close story were ones that we all chew on from time to time. The themes of cynicism and disappointment were thoroughly explored alongside the self-delusion that only the fortunate can seem to exhibit. The atmosphere that Yates created was one of stifling ambiguity, a desperate struggle for an unobtainable balance between two deeply unhappy people. Despite Frank's priggishness and April's cutting attitude, it was obvious that both these people were in pain, and that their lives were not the places they thought they would one day inhabit. Franks unlikablility and selfishness made me really feel for April at times, and at times I wondered how this unlikely pair ever came to be. And April was no peach either, believe me. She had a way of making me go cold, what with her lack of empathy and predilection for despondence.
Although I could not connect with these people, I certainly felt for them. In a way it was like watching a train wreck, awful and ferocious, yet I couldn't look away. This, I think, is the brilliance of Yates, whose spare yet weighty prose told the story of two unlikable protagonists in a totally believable and urgent way. I wanted more, yet at the same time, I wanted less. I felt like I was watching two people undress: they were naked and vulnerable, while still being tough and unyielding. The couple's utter lack of pragmatism, indeed their whole concept of reality and acceptability, was skewed and slanted, not to mention their huge issues of accountability. Franks moral contortions were especially frustrating. The interesting part of these human complexities was the couple's total animosity toward the typical suburban life, when in reality they were espousing all that they found so repulsive. Lovely picket fenced house? Check. Two point five children? Check. Attitude of suburban melancholy? Check. It would have been almost funny were it not so piercing. I found the author's ability to express all this masterful. His prose was convincing and sparse, while still being moving and descriptive. The book hurled effortlessly along, gaining weight and momentum as it plunged forward. Frank and April were almost never remorseful for their actions, but in a way defiant and almost child-like in their ardent opinions and bullying self-serving behavior. They were, in essence, people you love to hate, while still being able to relate to. The ending was a bit clichéd and unsatisfying, but I prefer to look at the book in terms of it's message and it's ability to express that message, which I found profound. How many of us know an April and Frank Wheeler? How many of us are April and Frank Wheeler? This scathing and unflinching look at a a crumbling marriage could easily be a mirror reflecting the secrets of a couple in 2008, so well has it aged. It was a modern treatment of an age old quandary. What do you do when enough is never enough, when reality clashes with expectation?
If you are looking for a feel good love story, this book is not for you. If, however, you're looking for an honest and unflinching portrait of a marriage on the brink of disaster, I highly recommend this book. It is truly a great study of human behavior and it's proclivity for self preservation. Yes, at times it is depressing, but not horribly so, and not in the ways you would expect. If the ideas put forth in the story don't sway you, I would instead suggest this book for it's readability and it's artistry. The character creation and the author's ability to dismay the reader is worth the cover price alone.
The Wheelers are a married, settled 1950s couple who are struggling with the slow death of their ambitions and hopes. On the surface they are conventional, with two children, friendly neighbours and roles in the local dramatic society. Frank works in the marketing department for a large business machines company, while Alice is a housewife. Gone are the days when they were a carefree couple living a post-war bohemian lifestyle. Instead they find themselves enclosed by work, children and society.
A daring plan to move to France and rediscover a bohemian lifestyle initially unites the couple and brings them happiness and peace once again. However, their frustration and pettiness surfaces once again and threatens their future happiness once again. The portrait of Jack Wheeler is eerily brilliant, but I did think that the character of Alice Wheeler was porrly drawn by the author.
This novel has been compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and it's easy to see why. Both novels are concerned with the cost of appearing successful and living the American dream. It's also not surprising that Yate's novel has found a new market in today's society. It's quiet story of frustration and aimlessness with resonate with many in today's world. Other characters are superbly created. We have the Campbells, a neighbouring mirror-image couple who live on a thin line of liking and disliking the Wheelers. Also in the cast is the dysfunctional Givings family who struggle with emotional expression and their disturbed son.
Revolutionary Road is not easy reading nor does it have a happy ending. It is bleak. It is an amazing portrayal of quiet despair and the simultaneous liking and hatred of conventionality. Despite being nearly 50 years old, its tale is still potent and will reach a new audience through the release of the film by Sam Mendes.
I loved Yates’s style from the opening chapter and was consistently impressed by his realism and his ability to portray his characters’ inner lives and their well-acted relationships equally well. This is clearly the work that sparked the idea that eventually inspired movies like American Beauty, and I’m sure Yates has been inspiration for many contemporary writers. Tom Perrotta’s writing seems to bear some marks of this influence, particularly in Little Children, but that’s just my guess.
Read my full review at The Book Lady's Blog.
Sadly, Frank and April Wheeler do not handle the erosion of their dreams at all well. As the young married couple whose travails form the center of Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates’ brilliant examination of social mores in the 1950s, the Wheelers appear to have it made. To the outside world, they are a well-educated and attractive couple with two young children, a house in a desirable Connecticut suburb, and a good steady job in the New York City. However, beneath that public exterior, the private truth is that their marriage is in trouble as they come to grips with the fact that their shared life, at one time so promising, is considerably different than expected. Told over the period of about a year, the novel focuses on a particularly turbulent time in the Wheelers’ life when events that should bring such joy instead lead to heart-breaking consequences.
Despite its occasional humorous touches, there is nothing particularly uplifting or sentimental about this deeply affecting book. Rather, the author draws a careful, detailed portrait of the frustration and disillusionment that the protagonists face as their world begins to crumble around them. To his great credit, he has managed to create in the Wheelers two characters that readers come to care about without especially liking them or condoning their actions. In a separate interview, Yates stated that he saw this story as a metaphor for the sense of conformity that he thought to be plaguing mid-20th century America. That may be true—and indeed certain passages in the book made it feel a little dated—but it would be a shame to dismiss Revolutionary Road as a mere period piece. By the end of the novel, the enduring memory you are left with is of the sad fates of people who could have existed almost anywhere and at almost any time.
Unexplored, that is, in literature, but otherwise apparently already a well-established phenomenon – the novel’s main protagonist Frank Wheeler is throughout the novel very conscious of what a typical resident of Suburbia looks like and how he behaves, and takes great care to be as different as possible. The novel starts with an amateur theatre performance and although it is Frank’s wife April who is playing the leading part in it, it soon becomes obvious that it is actually Frank who is always on stage – always casting himself in a role, always conscious of how he appears to others. And it does not take for the reader to notice (although Frank himself remains completely ignorant of this throughout the whole novel) that Frank’s attempts to distance himself from the suburbanite, his self-image of being better and more intelligent and talented than everyone around him stamps him as being part of precisely the crowd he so desperately does not want to be a part of. Revolutionary Road is at its funniest (and for all its dark and bleak tone, there are some very funny moments in the novel) when it shows the Wheelers meet with friends to deride and laugh at the narrow-minded suburbanites to which they are oh so superior while being blissfully unaware that precisely by this ridiculing they show themselves to be members of the class they are pointing fingers at.
And this is where (depending on your own perspective) Revolutionary Road becomes either brilliant or problematic, depending on your reading experience. It is easy to see that the novel repeats exactly the same gesture it is damning its characters for, by building an identical complicity between narrator and readers that makes them feel superior to despicable and ludicrous Frank Wheeler and his circle. All of which would not be a bad thing at all, if the novel then managed to turn that around and make readers aware that they have lapsed into the same self-satisfied smugness that is seen to be characteristic of Suburbia; and assessment of the novel’s merit will largely depend on whether one thinks that the novels succeeds in instilling that self-awareness in the reader.
Now, I won’t claim to have read Revolutionary Road very closely, and because of that I might very easily have missed out on decisive clues – but as far as I could see, the novel not only does not succeed at reaching any kind of self-reflexiveness but is not even trying. This is largely due to its form (or, if you prefer, its genre), namely that it is a realistic novel, told in a very traditional, 19th century way which has as its underlying assumption that a novel mirrors reality as it is – an assumption that requires the mirror to be pure reflection and completely aloof from what it pictures. Such a model just has no place for a novel (or any medium) that is no longer pure but participates in what it describes and is aware of itself as describing. Revolutionary Road, then, is precisely this kind of pure realism – and unlike Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which is very conscious of how precarious the claim to mirror reality in fiction has become, Yates’ novel is not tinged by any form of modernism, it even has – although he masquerades as close third person perspective most of the time – an omniscient narrator. I’m quite open to the possibility that a more careful reading of the novel than I have undertaken might come up with things that I have overlooked, but for now I’m left with some disappointment at a novel that I think missed out on the chance to become truly engaging in every sense of the word by remaining blind to its own complicity in what it dissects.
Still, even though I think that Revolutionary Road is a highly problematic book, it is by no means a bad one – and a large part of the reason for that is another trait Yates shares with Flaubert, namely the extreme care he is taking with language. The writing here is gorgeous, making sure that every barbed arrow finds his aim, but also time and again blossoming into unexpected beauty when he describes a sunset or a piece of scenery or even some urban landscape. Those moments might be comparatively rare and mostly on the short side, but they are not less impressive for that and likely to linger in the reader’s mind.
Frank and April are a youngish couple with 2 kids- he commutes, she is a home maker. They are witty and fun and pretty sure that they are better than the mediocrity that their neighbours display. They are dead keen to prove themselves able to rise above the suburbs, and the cookie-cutter banality of their commuter-estate home. They decide on a course of action to prove their adventurousness. They are sure this will jump-start their lives. Well anyway, plans change. Things change and the storyline comes to a crux with a devastating act .
The writing is sublime! How cleverly Yates captures the thoughts behind the actions of Frank. The observations are so subtle. Descriptive but not overly so. This book is one of my favourites of the year so far.
I think I may have enjoyed the book more had the trope of how stultifying suburbia is not become so ubiquitous. In other words, I'm sure this book was shocking and powerful in 1962 (and it serves as a precursor to some themes of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," published the following year).
There is no doubt, however, that the prose Yates writes is both beautiful and engaging.
No one is more shocked that I loved this novel than I am. I've had difficulty reading novels with women suffering from Post-Partum Depression since suffering it myself. Reading about it brings those overwhelming and nearly unbearable days back to me. My chest tightens and I feel anxious just reading about it. If it cuts too close to home, I have to stop reading. I anticipated as much with Revolutionary Road. While the details of our experiences were much different, I saw myself in April. When she was convincing Frank to move to France, I could smell her despair and I could feel the manic waves rushing through her blood. She wanted to be someone else and do something else because she was certain that those things would rescue her from her own private hell.
Despite the connection I had with April, her issues went much deeper than struggling with motherhood. She's not ever satisfied with reality. Whatever her dreams may be, having them come to fruition is sure to destroy them. As much as I empathized with Frank (hate the flaws, love the flawed character), he really was a coward parading as a man of ideas and ideals. He is a scared little boy lacking the confidence to be somebody. Instead he has built a wall of cynicism around himself. How much easier - not to mention safer - is it to wax eloquent about how boring a job is than making an honest effort at building a career and a life of which he can be proud?
Richard Yates was an undeniably talented writer. Despite the depressing content, I was entranced by his use of language. Frank and April's arguments were painful and I felt as though I was with them through it all because they were so alive. Even though I was all too aware of the train wreck that was coming, I just could not put the book down. Revolutionary Road reminded me a great deal of The Great Gatsby. Both novels are beautifully written, are fascinating looks into the human condition, and bring their time periods to life like nothing else I've read. While noting some difficult subject matter, I would recommend Revolutionary Road just as highly.
For some reason I cannot explain, I call this novel "Reservation Road" all the time. I have to actually think to talk about Revolutionary Road. Hopefully I've not messed that up in my review. I've proofread it, but proofreading your own writing is tricky. I know what I meant to write, but when what I meant to write might be wrong...
But it never seemed to me to become more than the sum of its parts, and the characters didn't seem to grow or develop or to reach any sort of understanding about themselves, they merely followed their unhappy trajectories to the end of the novel without one moment of satori. After a promising start, I felt disengaged and disappointed by the end and relieved to be free of Frank and April's all-consuming self indulgence and self pity.
Finally, it seemed to me that Yates kept his female characters, including April, at arm's length. We rarely, if ever, take their internal perspective; and when we get a lot of detail about Frank's work, we get little or no description of the life April must have been leading at home day to day. She remains strangely opaque, a strong physical presence, but - perhaps until the end - essentially mysterious.