The Yates season continues with this absolute gem of a book. I’m finding it difficult to choose between the ones I’ve read as to which is my favourite at the moment…they are all so wonderful in their own ways.
The Easter Parade is different from the two previous reads in that it is not about middle aged men losing their minds and their wives, but about two sisters, from youth to middle age, and how their lives go off in their own distinct directions, bringing each their separate regrets, disappointments, and unhappiness. It is standard Yates territory; the theme of yearning, of searching, for a happiness his characters never seem to quite find, is threaded throughout this slim book, and it is terribly poignant. There are pinpricks of hope to be found scattered across the pages, if you look closely enough, but by the time I’d closed this book I was left with a prevailing sense of deep sadness that these women were never able to find true satisfaction, or tell the truth about how deeply they really loved each other.
The story begins in the girls’ childhoods. Sarah and Emily have been brought up by their mother, Pookie, an eccentric coquette who is obsessed with ‘flair’ and keeping up appearances despite her lack of money, and moves her daughters around constantly, always in search of a better house, a better life, and a better man. Their father is a copy desk man, a newspaper headline writer in the City, who sees the girls at weekends and cries a lot; his character reminded me of John Wilder from Disturbing the Peace…a sort of cameo role, if you like. The girls love him more than their mother, and are devastated when he dies when they are both still at school. Sarah is the eldest by four or five years, and is the glamorous, good looking and favourite sister, who can never do a thing wrong. She is keen to get married straight out of school, and after the war, she marries an English educated New Yorker and moves to his family estate in Long Island, leaving Emily and Pookie behind in the City. Emily is plain, shy and awkward, always in the shadow of Sarah. She gets a college scholarship and then becomes a career woman, going from relationship to relationship, both wanting, and not wanting, the security and commitment of a long term partner.
The sadness of the sisters’ lives is that each wants what the other has, and is completely unaware of the secret unhappiness that underpins each other’s existences. Sarah seems to have it all; beauty, a handsome husband (who looks like Laurence Olivier), a country home, three wonderful sons, and a little writing career on the side. Emily finds it difficult to visit Sarah and see her in this domestic idyll, and rarely visits as she grows older. Emily appears to be living the perfect life of a carefree, liberated careerwoman, with a great job, a nice apartment, and a string of relationships with interesting men. But Sarah’s marriage is not all that it seems, and her house is falling apart; and Emily’s freespirited lifestyle is unsettling and increasingly lonely. As the girls grow older, the more the cracks in their lives begin to show, but the complications of pride and appearances, and of the tangled intricacies of the fierce, primal nature of sibling love, mixed with jealousy, bitterness and selfishness, render them helpless to give each other the support they both so desperately need.
I was just so blown away by this novel. I have a much loved older sister (and brother, also much loved – just so that he doesn’t feel left out!), and I could definitely relate to the conflicting feelings Yates so brilliantly describes between the sisters. Sibling love is not pure; it is contaminated with jealousy, with pain, and with rivalry. There is no other love quite like it; that adores unconditionally, that idolises, that seeks to protect, that selflessly celebrates achievement, while at the same time seethes with envy and resentment and bitterness, and selfishly seeks to outdo. It is a strange and powerful love, that brings, with all of its pleasures, a pain that can never quite be eradicated. For who can wound more deeply than a sibling? Emily and Sarah love each other, deeply and profoundly, in the way only siblings can, but there is a gulf between them, made up of all the unspoken envy, hurt and insecurity that have built up over the years. Emily won’t admit it, but she has always craved Sarah’s acceptance and praise. Sarah has always been proud of Emily, and secretly admired her for her lifestyle, but she rarely lets her know it. Neither can understand the other’s lifestyle choices; both wonder whether they would have been happier leading the other’s life. And both, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, inflict wounds upon each other, wounds that end up dictating the decisions they make, and their ultimate fates.
The Easter Parade is an excellently drawn portrayal of the emptiness at the centre of all of us; the craving we all have for peace, for contentment, for happiness, and how many of us spend our lives searching for this, in vain. Sarah and Emily both want what they don’t have; their lives are a facade, put up to fool those around them that they are fulfilled, and happy, when really, at the core, they are both quietly, slowly, starving to death. If only they could be honest with each other, they could have helped one another; but the roles they have always played, of caring, protective, perfect older sister, and self sufficient, proud, jealous younger sister, sabotage any attempt at doing so. They are trapped in the mould of the people their childhood taught them to be, and ultimately, neither of them can break free.
I am beginning to feel a bit emotionally drained by all this stark reality and depressive thoughts about the essential meaninglessness of life, but I am pushing through the pain to re-read Revolutionary Road, which will be next week’s Yates Season read. Please do join in if you can; this is Yates’ first work, and widely considered to be his best, to boot, so it would be great to have some people read along with me. I have also been the VERY lucky and undeserved recipient of a Librarything Member’s kindness this week; I have been sent Blake Bailey’s incredible biography of Yates, which I hope will greatly illuminate my reading of his works. I can’t wait to get started on it!