The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

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!

17 comments

  1. This sounds like a novel that I would LOVE; it also sounds similar to They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple. Having a much younger sister, we don’t have the same type of relationship that sisters closer in age do but I still think I would recognise some of those conflicting feelings.

    I have a busy week of reading ahead so I doubt I’ll manage to read Revolutionary Road in time but I’ll try. I can’t remember whether you have seen the film or not but, if not, then I highly recommend it.

    Henrietta’s War should provide light relief from the stark reality and depressive thoughts.

    1. Interesting comparison – I hadn’t thought about that at all, but you are right. I think you would definitely like The Easter Parade.

      I hope you manage to fit in Revolutionary Road – it will be good to have some people reading along with me! I have watched the film and I really enjoyed it, though it was very depressing, as films go.

      Henrietta’s War has cheered me up immensely…a review will be coming soon as I finished it last night.

  2. I don’t know why I owned this book for several years and have not read it. I love the writing style of Yates. I loved what you had to say about Easter Parade! Thanks

    1. I hope you read it soon, Diane! I am loving Yates’ writing style too – it might be very melancholy but it’s still beautiful. Glad you liked the review!

  3. I’m so glad to hear that you liked this one! It really is an excellent book, and I’d love to see it get the attention that Revolutionary Road has gotten. Given that Yates is often described as being focused on the dark side of suburbia, it was interesting to see that he didn’t see the urban, single life as being all glamor and happiness either.

    1. I know, I do think that those who do read Yates, if at all, tend to start and stop at Revolutionary Road. I know I was surprised at how many books he did publish – I’ve read four now and I have but scratched the surface – I think there are about another four or five, including the collected stories, and I can’t wait to read them all. Yes, that it is interesting – I don’t think Yates offers any easy alternatives – he portrays the bleakness of marriage, but also of singleness, and I get the impression that he thinks happiness to elusive to most of us, regardless of where we live and who we live with.

    1. Oh I am so pleased! Yes, I am seeing the comparisons now – interesting how different two authors can seem but you can still find links between them. Thank you, JoAnn!

  4. I’ve been reading your Yates reviews and wondering, if I were to jump in, where exactly I should jump. This book sounds like it might be the place. I too was reminded of Dorothy Whipple in your review, but of the relationship between the sisters in The Priory.

    1. I think this will be a good jump in point, too! Interesting that you thought of Whipple, but of The Priory…I really hadn’t thought of that and it’s made me think of Whipple in a different way.

  5. Oh how I wish, wish, wish I hadn’t seen the movie of Revolutionary Road before reading the book. The movie just keeps on keeping on in my mind and I haven’t forgotten enough of it to go to the book just yet. But you have given me some very excellent sounding Yates alternatives – fanatstic reviews, by the way. I think this one, Easter Parade tickles my fancy the most – being one of three sisters and all …

    1. Movies have a way of ruining the books they depict, don’t they? I read Revolutionary Road just before I watched the film, but I had already seen the trailers with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio and so I never really got to imagine the characters for myself – I can’t get their faces separate from April and Frank. I hope you will be able to read it one day because it is so worth it.

  6. I so nearly got this when I took a book back to the library this week but didnt think could fit the read in and also wasnt sure when you would post so I thought I would wait for your review… now I will get it if its there next time. I am not sure with the NTTVBG and normal book group I will have time to get to Revolutionary Road soon but you have got it to the top of the TBR waiting to end up on the bedside table!

    1. Oh please get it next time! Whenever you’re ready for Revolutionary Road, I promise you’ll love it…I can’t wait to see what you think when the time comes!

  7. Nicely done–and it’s no surprise that you’re feeling emotionally drained by your Yates fest. This book alone is harrowing. In some ways perhaps it best that you read the others you’ve written up first–the RevRoad into Easter Parade tandem is brilliant, extraordinary and fantastic, but it’s devastating. Certain images and the general, steady march of suffering in Easter Parade are still such strong memories for me, after reading it last year.

    You’ve read plenty now (have you read the stories? hard to tell–they’re amazing, and Richard Russo, who wrote the introduction to the stories, has written a screenplay based on three of them, Builders, Saying Goodbye to Sally, and Oh Joseph I’m So Tired. The stories might be a good strategy if you’re taking a break), and Bailey’s excellent biography will clarify a lot of things and send you back into the fiction. It’s surprising how Yates’s work is so autobiographical and powerfully fictive at the same time, and reading Bailey strengthens that appreciation.

    It applies in phenomenal ways to Easter Parade, where Yates is creating a female fictional character based on his own experience and personality in ways, and also showing her fall in love with flawed male versions of himself. It’s kind of like J.M. Coetzee’s new novel/memoir in certain ways, actually.

    You’ll like Kateonyates at wordpress, I think, and I look forward to reading more of your good work and reading here.

  8. I finished “Easter Parade” this morning and looked around the web for reviews. It does seem that a modest Yates revival is in swing. Different strokes for different folks I suppose, but I don’t count myself among his admirers.

    I can appreciate his spare style, plainspoken and readable, However, he’s just too grim for me. I feel like I’m in the presence of an old, bitter uncle who dislikes people and is bound and determined that no one within earshot should like people either. I can see Yates’s influence on Raymond Carver, but I never get the sense that Carver dislikes his characters or is generally sour on life, as I do with Yates.

    This doesn’t invalidate his contribution. It’s more a personal matter of what I want to read. I would add though, that I see no mystery that Yates’s books sold poorly and went out of print, which seems to baffle some supporters like Stewart O’Nan.

    BTW — I was struck by how much the dialog between the adult sisters in EP reminded me of similar situations in Marge Piercy’s novels. In a blind test I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish Yates from Piercy. Has anyone else noticed this?

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