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Revolutionary Road (Modern American Fiction) Paperback – 1 Feb 2001
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Originally published in 1961 to great critical acclaim, Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road subsequently fell into obscurity in the UK, only to be rediscovered in a new edition published in 2001. Its rejuvenation is due in large part to its continuing emotional and moral resonance for an early 21st-century readership. April and Frank Wheeler are a young, ostensibly thriving couple living with their two children in a prosperous Connecticut suburb in the mid-1950s. However, like the characters in John Updike's similarly themed Couples, the self-assured exterior masks a creeping frustration at their inability to feel fulfilled or happy in their relationships or careers. Frank is mired in a well-paid but boring office job and April is a housewife still mourning the demise of her hoped-for acting career. Determined to identify themselves as superior to the mediocre sprawl of suburbanites who surround them, they decide to move to France where they will be better able to develop their true artistic sensibilities, free of the consumerist demands of capitalist America. However, as their relationship deteriorates into an endless cycle of squabbling, jealousy and recriminations, their trip and their dreams of self-fulfilment are thrown into jeopardy. Yates's incisive, moving and often very funny prose weaves a tale that is at once a fascinating period piece and a prescient anticipation of the way we live now. Many of the cultural motifs now seem quaintly dated--the early evening cocktails, Frank's illicit lunch breaks with his secretary, the way Frank isn't averse to knocking April around when she speaks out of turn all seem to belong to a different world--and yet the quiet desperation at thwarted dreams reverberates as much now as it did 40 years ago. Like F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the poverty at the soul of many wealthy Americans and the exacting cost of chasing the American Dream. --Jane Morris
The story of Frank and April Wheeler, a bright, beautiful and talented couple who have lived on the assumption that greatness is just around the corner. With heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity, Richard Yates shows how they mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying themselves and each other.
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April is a failed actress, or rather an actress that never really tried because she became pregnant with Frank's child. Her initial panicked desire to abort is never consummated and therefore she and Frank become a couple they never wanted to be. Pretentious, consumerist saddled with two children they don't seem to understand. The children are as confused as the parents; seeking to please but somehow destined to fail.
A lot of reviewers seem to state Yates as being humourless, but what is more darkly humorous than Mrs Givings, the quintessence of middle American 'niceness' who drags her unattractive and bluntly raving mad son into the midst of the Wheeler's parlour games.Possibly schizophrenic, Givings junior detests his mother and is a loose cannon in her presence...
He is the lone voice that calls the Wheelers out on their hypocrisy and pretensions, but he is also mad, bad and dangerous.
Themes of adultery, domestic violence and duplicity ripple through the pages and just as we think April has calmed down, she starts to peel apart like an onion. Even the Wheelers' staid friends are as phony as they are. Bull headed Shep who is secretly disgusted by his wife's very odour, who lusts after April and his gossipy terrified wife whom he has abused during a drunken episode. One of the few early books where the C word appears and it gives jolt here. Good old Shep is actually lusting after his best friend's wife.
We soon see she has no feeling for Frank, or very little. She plays a charade of being a good girl on a daily basis. Efficient and cool, she cuts a beautiful and desirable figure in the book. Some critics have found her unlikable but the clue to her psychology is only explored later in the last few chapters, a past which Frank has skimmed over as willfully as he skims over everything in his customary half-arsed manner.
I felt wholly sorry for April, never understood, forever parrying against the attacks and manipulations of Frank. Her beauty gives her little hope, her neuroses are her undoing. She wants freedom but has no idea how to achieve it. The only control she is finally left with is that over her own body when she finally achieved what would have been done in the first place instead of being trapped in a marriage which is as co-dependent as they come.
From the title, I had the wrong idea about this book. Maybe the title was supposed to be ironic, but the early part of the book, about the failure, on its first night, of a local dramatic group, was unexpected.
As I read through the angry exchanges and sulks of the two main protagonists, I was reminded of watching the film ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, when I sat thinking, ‘Why am I listening to a slanging match between a warring married couple?’ And yet, I did get drawn in, and wanted to know how the couple in question - April and Frank Wheeler - would resolve their problems.
Other characters were the snobbish landlady, Mrs Givings, her deaf husband and her possibly autistic son, who had no inhibitions about saying what he thought, to everyone else’s embarrassment.
Also there were the family friends, Shep and Millie Campbell, who were helpful, but not quite intellectual enough for the main characters, who each felt that they were a cut above these friends - and therein lay their problems. Bogged down respectively, in domesticity and an unchallenging job - each was trapped in a life that they somehow thought they didn’t deserve and hadn’t anticipated.
Initially, I was on the side of the husband, who I saw as a Jack Lemmon type of man (when he’s a lowly clerk, in The Apartment.) He seems to adore his wife, who initially, seems a bit of a harridan. But in the latter part of the book, I see his transition to a manipulative bully, imposing his will upon her. His greater confidence was purely as a result of a possible promotion at work. If he had been in that position when he first met her, that is, being successful in his work, perhaps she would have disliked his arrogance and never married him. Instead of that, they were two dysfunctional unconfident people who found something in each other.
Withut revealing the climax, I would have liked to know, following her meticulous planning, did she mean to cause what eventually happened?
It was not a book that left you with good feelings at the end, and probably I would not read it a second time. But the dialogue between the characters, their awful truths, finally let out, and their internal thoughts that we had access to were very, very well done. I think 4 stars, or 7 or 8 out of 10 for sheer readability, though perhaps not empathy.
The main protagonists, April and Frank Wheeler, are outwardly living the American dream in the suburbs. They have a dread of suburban life, viewing most suburbanites as shallow, timid, conventional people but for them "the important thing was to keep from being contaminated". Despite their smug, snobbish sense of superiority over their neighbours, the reality is that they aren't really any different. There is a huge amount of self-deception going on, particularly on the part of Frank. In truth, for all his protestations, it is April who comes across as the more adventurous one: Frank seems to be entirely conventional, increasingly so as the book progresses. Ironically the one who sees best through the lies and hypocrisy is a minor character, the mentally unstable son of the real estate agent who sold them their house.
Few, if any, of the characters are likeable, but I thought Frank was particularly loathsome - his smug sense of being 'different', his ability to talk a good talk even though he can't or won't walk the talk, his skills in manipulation, his self-absorption.
I loved the writing style - quite cool and spare with convincing dialogue.
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