Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Well.

I needed to take a few days after finishing Revolutionary Road before I wrote a review. Reading Yates is an emotionally draining experience, and so is thinking about the implications of his writing; how it makes me feel, how it effects me, and why. What I love about his work is that it is unsparing, unsentimental, and unafraid. Reading his books evokes the feeling of being naked in public; of being exposed, vulnerable, small, and ashamed. His words are whispers of my secret fears and at times they make my blood run cold. Why am I really here? Is it worth all of this pain, all of this frustration, all of this worry, if really, I’m never going to find this ‘something’ I’ve been searching for anyway?

Frank and April Wheeler are idealists; they believe there is a golden world of Elysium out there for them to find, a different plane of a higher existence they can reach, if only they could escape from the confines of their drab lives. They have convinced themselves that they are superior to the people around them, that they are special, and deserve, are entitled to, something better than their humdrum day to day lives in a pastel coloured suburban town. April had dreams of being an actress; Frank has some sort of undefined talent that he believes sets him apart. One thing they both know; they were made for more than they have settled for.

The book opens with the first night performance of The Laurel Players; the dramatic society that has recently been formed by local people looking for some culture outside of the ‘city’. It transpires that April has ‘reluctantly’ been drawn in to take part, on account of her dramatic training, and what was supposed to be a triumphant evening for her, and the Players, ends in embarrassment and shame when the cast fall apart under the pressure. April’s dream of being an actress is shattered yet again, and a violent argument breaks out between her and Frank on the way home from the play. This fight serves as a microcosm of their marriage; blame, hate, frustration, disappointment, fear and loathing bubble to the surface as they rip apart the carcass of their relationship on the side of the new highway lined with the bright and breezy strip malls selling the American Dream.

A couple of days later, Frank returns home, expecting the hostile silence he has become used to from the wife he is never secure of, and instead finds a repentant, beautiful April, who has prepared a birthday celebration for him. She has recovered her happiness; she has made a new plan for their lives, a plan that will give them the dream existence they long for. They are going to move to Paris; April will work, and Frank will be free to discover his true vocation. All seems perfect for a while, and the Wheelers experience a contentment in their marriage that hasn’t been present since its earliest days as they talk about their plans and imagine the beauty of their new lives. However, Frank’s nagging fear that he doesn’t really have any spectacular talent to discover makes him reluctant to fully commit to the plan, and  it isn’t long before Frank starts to have doubts; unexpected recognition, and promises of promotion, at the job he has always dismissed as dull begin to  make him think it might be better for them to stay behind. Then April’s unplanned pregnancy puts a stop to it all; a secret relief for Frank, but a devastating blow for April, that will change the course of their lives and demonstrate just how destructive unrealised dreams can be.

This was Yates’ first novel, and is considered his best by many. The story of the ill fated April and Frank, of their friends, who viewed them as admirable, aspirational revolutionaries, only to be disappointed in their inefficiency to live out their dreams, just like everyone else, and of the crazy son of their neighbours, driven mad by the inescapable, essential hopelessness of life, is astoundingly painful, haunting, depressing, and yet, somehow, beautiful. In amongst the despair, there are moments to be treasured, moments of joy, of love, of contentment, and peace, that make life worth living, worth trying for. There are no easy answers with Yates; there are no cosy endings, no platitudes, no comfort for the weary.  However, there is a bravery, a brazenness, in his declaration that life is not the romance novel we have made it into. Lives don’t all have happy endings; dreams don’t come true, hearts do get broken, and happiness is often hard to come by. Yates never shies away from this. His characters all scrabble around, trying to find the magic key to a more fulfilling existence; they never find it, but at least they believe it’s there; at least they try. That is what I find most compelling about Yates; amidst the despair and hopelessness, hope springs eternal. His characters have an inherent belief that life should be, is capable of being, greater, fuller, more beautiful. They dare to dream.

I am now reading Blake Bailey’s excellent biography; I will post about it as I go along as it has many fascinating insights into Yates’ work. At the moment I am just bowled over by how autobiographical his work was; sometimes he didn’t even bother to disguise the names of the people he wrote about. He was a remarkable man, with a tragic life, and I am slowly getting sucked into his world…

38 comments

  1. Wow, you wonderfully articulated all the feelings I had about Revolutionary Road back when I read it years ago. Funny but I am afraid to read the book again and you’ve made that even more so. Maybe I am just having my own moments of despair.

    1. Thank you, and thank you for reading!
      I know…there is a certain trepidation when opening a Yates because you never know what chord it is going to strike in your heart. If you’re not careful, they can set you to thinking too much about the negative aspects of life, and leave you in despair about the pointlessness of it all. It’s important to look at the characters and understand WHY Yates portrays them in the way he does – it’s not that life is terrible, it’s how we deal with life that often causes the frustration and despair he describes. It’s an important distinction and has made his work much more bearable and relatable for me.

  2. I’ve enjoyed your posts on Richard Yates and I’d really love to try one of his books now. Could you recommend a book to start with? I don’t want it to be Revolutionary Road though. I saw the movie last year and it was an unpleasant experience though I do think Kate and Leo were excellent in their parts. It was not a good movie. Would love to hear which of his other books you recommend for a first read. Thanks!

    1. Astrid, I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the reviews! From the books I’ve read I think The Easter Parade would be an excellent place to start – it’s also very autobiographical so it provides a wonderful insight into Yates’ life.

      Yes – I enjoyed the film but it was highly unsettling. Not the usual Hollywood fare. It was superbly acted and shot, though I think the positives you can find in the novel are much harder to eke out from watching the film. You shouldn’t shy away from reading the book because of it – it’s a rewarding read and not as depressing, I promise.

  3. How did you find this one in comparison with the other Yates you’ve read? I know it’s considered his best by, I don’t know, whoever decides these things – what do you think?

    1. I don’t know, to be honest. Revolutionary Road was a re-read for me, and I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time round, but I don’t think I can pick it out as my particular ‘favourite’. All of the books of his that I’ve read have been outstanding in their own ways and it’s hard to compare them, really – I find him very consistently excellent as a writer, which is rare to find. None of his books have disappointed. One thing that did strike me is that Rev Road is not obviously a ‘first’ book, if that makes sense – it’s every bit as polished as his later fiction. I suppose you could say that it condenses all of his popular themes into one novel, and is sort of his manifesto on life, which might be why it’s considered the quintessential Yates, but I do think that perception of Revolutionary Road as being his best and most wonderful work diminishes the power and excellence of his later novels, which are every bit as good in my opinion. I hope that answers your question!

  4. This is well done. Keep writing about RevRoad. Don’t stop here. You don’t need to tell us the story, this is your own second reading, although you’re welcome to if that helps you find your way. In your second to last paragraph you’re feeling it. living it, identifying, “driven mad by the inescapable, essential hopelessness of life, is astoundingly painful, depressing, and yet somehow beautiful.” Yes, exactly. You’ve paid your Yates dues over the past month during the YatesFest, or whatever you’re calling it. Please please tell us more. How does it make you feel? What do you think now? Please keep going! Very few people have read Yates thoroughly and written thoughtfully and carefully about his work. It’s both new and neglected. It’s a surprising blogextravaganza, so please, tie it all together and give us the big picture, your larger view. Bailey will help. But trust your instincts and write about all of this magnificent pain and life.

    Is Easter Parade a better book? How does RevRoad compare to Great Gatsby, in your own reading? What about Jon Givens and Walker, from Disturbing the Peace? Yates raises so many questions that no one has tried to answer yet.

    1. Thank you for your wonderful comment! I’m so pleased you have enjoyed my reviews and want to hear more. I am definitely going to do more ‘wrap up’ posts, using the information gleaned from reading his biography. There is still so much I want to discuss and pull out from his work.

      As I said to Jenny I am finding it difficult to judge whether some of his books are ‘better’ than others – he is such a consistently excellent writer that it’s hard to pick favourites. The Great Gatsby question is very interesting to me as it’s been a long while since I read it and reading in his bio that it was his great influence has made me want to reread it and see what patterns I can find in Yates’ writing. Yes – John Givens is quite a similar character to John Walker in Disturbing the Peace – it’s interesting how small a role John Givens has in Revolutionary Road, but how profoundly his presence is felt throughout the novel. He is, ironically, the only voice of genuine truth. I think he may have been a practice run for the Walker character. So much more to explore and think about – you have given me much food for thought, thank you!

    1. Thank you! I did, and I much prefer reading his books to seeing them on screen. I very much enjoyed the film, as it was so brilliantly acted, but I did find it much bleaker than the novel, which I think would put people off his work.

  5. I loved this book, and Easter Parade, when I read them last year but I then took a Yates break – I will have to get back to his other work. It sounds as though Yates – his writing and his life – is impacting on you in a similar way to how Woolf is on me at the moment.

    1. Yes, do get back to his other stuff, it’s so worth it! I think it’s wonderful to be so immersed in one author…I’m glad you’re having the same experience with Woolf.

  6. Sorry, Rachel, but I didn’t have time to read the book with getting the new website ready and book group commitments.

    I’m surprised by Mrs. B’s comment as I thought the movie was exceptional. Bleak and uncompromising, Frank and April’s life and fate were unpleasant to watch but ultimately I found the pessimism to be uplifting as it reinforces that we should follow our dreams and fulfill ourselves by seeking out what we want. I thought the argument scenes were especially well done and showed how couples can destroy one another when fighting.

    1. That’s ok Claire! I totally understand! I need to come over and explore your new site properly…I never seem to have much time to do these things any more!

      Yes, the film was excellent, and I agree with your points exactly – but I think for some the ending was just too bleak and they couldn’t find any hope or redemption in it. Knowing the book before I watched the film, I could, but for those coming to Yates for the first time through the film version, I can understand why they would struggle with it. It’s also very unusual these days to see a film with such a pessimistic viewpoint, and I would imagine a lot of people were disappointed by the negativity and were expecting something a little more..well…Hollywood, I suppose!

  7. Revolutionary Road was very well done as an audiobook. I haven’t seen the movie, but Mrs. B’s and Claire’s comments have me adding it to my Netflix queue. Another great review, Rachel!

    1. Thanks JoAnn! I can imagine Revolutionary Road being great as an audiobook – as long as the voices were done well. Lots of arguments and dialogue.

      You should definitely see the film- it is excellent and Kate and Leo outdo themselves.

    1. Hi Dana! Thanks so much for reading my blog!

      It is indeed great and you should try and read it at some point. Yates has really been so neglected by the reading community and I’d love to see a revival of his work.

  8. Just wanted to reply to Claire’s comment… (some spoilers)

    I do see what you’re trying to say about it being uplifting in spite of the bleakness….but I guess i didn’t realise it while watching the film. There’s more time for reflection while reading a book and a film just whizzes by you. I know I left the cinema feeling bogged down with all the unpleasant arguments of the couple and the depressing ending.

    I don’t know if the book is different. I don’t mind sad stories but maybe this type of story is better experienced in a book rather than in a film. Or maybe it’s better to read the book first then see the movie.

  9. I love this line from your review: “His words are whispers of my secret fears and at times they make my blood run cold.”

    For me, that’s the thing that’s so amazing about Yates–at least in The Easter Parade and Revolutionary Road. His characters think and feel the things a lot of (if not most) people probably think and feel, and so his books resonate with people. I love that his characters want a better life–that striving makes them compelling. The thing is, his characters don’t find a way to balance their hopes and dreams with the reality of life.

    And for Mrs. B, I started with The Easter Parade, and I liked it quite well. It is bleak, but very, very good.

    1. Thank you Teresa…you are so right. Yates hits so close to the bone, and doesn’t spare us the fears that we all try and escape from in life. Reading his books can either be phenomenally depressing or uplifting, depending on what you choose to take from them – not everyone has to end up like his characters, and I think Yates does show that.

      I agree that Easter Parade is an excellent place to start for the novice!

  10. This is on my tbr list for this year. I loved the movie and have been a little nervous about reading the book. But your review, along with others, is making me want to get to it soon.

    1. Oh don’t be nervous! Your life will be richer for it, just because it makes you really think. Sometimes you need to comfort read but at other times I think it really helps to be confronted with reality and to have to deal with how you think about life. It’s working for me at the moment. But you do have to choose the right time to read him. Not when you’re emotionally vulnerable, perhaps!

  11. It’s on my list, too. I bought it in hardcover, and then made the mistake (for me, anyway) of seeing the film, so I put reading the book on hold. I’d like to pick it up, though, which I probably will in 2010. Especially appealing to me is what you said about Yate’s work, “unsparing, unsentimental, and unafraid.” That sounds wonderful!

    1. Yes, it is good to leave a gap isn’t it? You don’t want to be too influenced in your interpretation by the film. Yes – he is those three words exactly, and I hope you love him as much as I do!

  12. Oh it’s another quite bleak, but honest writer to add to the reading list. What do you think it is about these kind of writers that draw readers back, even as they break down all the illusions that keep us from jumping off a cliff? Is it the truth do you think, or that sense of trying even if they don’t succedd you pick out about Yates’ characters? Loved hearing your thoughts on this, you’re so eloquent.

    1. Thank you so much! Well I think it’s partly the car crash reaction – we can’t help but want to stare misfortune in the face – but we also need to know that we are not alone. Yates’ characters are real and they are relatable – they say and think the things we fear and they are unashamed to do so. They confront the realities of life that are often very difficult to think about, but I think at the same time, in reading how his characters make a mess of their lives, we can take some sort of comfort in believing that we won’t end up like them – we know that our lives are lacking, but we won’t drink ourselves into oblivion – we’ll do something about it instead. For some I am sure Yates’ novels are depressing, but for me, and others with my mindset, they are more hopeful, because they demonstrate the importance of having a dream in the first place, and of daring to pursue it – plus, reading about his characters and their failures can give you the boost to do something to make sure you don’t go down that path. So he can either be a depressant or an inspiration, depending on your state of mind!

  13. I too, struggled to articulate exactly what it was about Revolutionary Road that I found so completely captivating. It certainly wasn’t a comfortable read, nor an uplifting one. but there was something in the way Yates writes that captures a feeling of palpable tension all the way through the book. I’ve never read anything that did that as well. I thinks its a very brave book that says things that we normally never dare to say.
    That many of us are cowardly and unfulfilled, that we so often cleave to people who harm us and that we all ultimately have a self destruct setting.

    On a lighter note hello! This my first comment from my new blog so howdy book friends!

    1. Hello! Welcome! Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I love Yates’ bravery too – his writing is quite uncomparable in its starkness, isn’t it? I think his work is refreshing in the fact that it does make the reader uncomfortable – it’s provoking, and it gets under your skin – you can’t fail to be haunted by his characters afterwards. That’s true talent.

  14. Fantastic review. I usually find reviews of books I haven’t read boring (or I just skim for a general yah or nay), but this makes me want to go and read this NOW.

  15. Here’s a quote I love from Sam Mendes:

    I never saw this is as a grim story at all. It’s full of Yates’ wit, eccentricity, originality and characters you really like, perhaps in spite of yourself. It’s very full of details about human beings – both the bad and the wonderful.”

    Cold Spring Harbor is an amazing, neglected, near perfect Yates novel.

    1. Mother4, thank you for commenting!

      That quote is perfect in showing how you can choose to see Yates’ work as grim or as brilliant, with superb characterisation, razor sharp wit and real humanity. I choose the latter. Thank you for posting the quote!

      I am on a mission to read everything Yates ever wrote – Cold Spring Harbor is next on my list!

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