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Revolutionary Road

15 Comments

(Spoiler alert!)

I have just finished reading Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, on which the current movie starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio is based. I haven’t seen the film, and on the basis of the book – no matter how winsome and well-coiffed Kate and Leo may be – I won’t. It’s not that I am afraid of sad movies (I saw The Reader this weekend, which is one hundred levels of sad), it’s that I am tired, tired, tired of the storyline Wife Gives Up Everything for Husband’s Career, Becomes Depressed and, By Mistake or Not, Offs Herself.

Revolutionary Road is a book of its time, 1961, where wives were mostly at home and husbands were mostly at work and anyone who crossed those rigid gender lines was considered downright odd or desperate. I give it that. Another thing I give it is that it is strongly written and the characters are crystalline and piercing. Yates has a way into their heads that is compelling, that leaves you almost breathless with its frank and disturbing insight.

My objection is which characters’ heads he enters. As readers, we know a lot about Frank Wheeler, the Husband. We know that he is very impressed with himself, that he loves his own verbiage and his ironic and cutting take on his now far too suburban life. We know that Frank considers himself an iconoclast even though he is rather ordinary, and that his rebellions are typecast (affair with secretary, daytime drinking, not taking his job seriously). Frank believes in his own PR that he is an artistic soul searching for meaning and the way to handle the vast gap between that belief and his life is to take nothing seriously, and wield irony at every turn. His tragedy is that he does choose the conventional path, and that is what sets off the horror of this story.

Another character into whose head we delve is Frank’s neighbour and friend, Shep Campbell. We know that Shep ran away from his privileged background, went to an ordinary college and prides himself on marrying Millie, daughter of a painter, whom he has helped to rise above her station and who now has decorated her home almost as well as April Wheeler has done. Despite being proud of Millie’s pulling herself by her bootstraps, Shep is frantically in love with April. We spend a goodly amount of time in his head as he sways between the two poles of Millie and April.

The third character to whom Yates devotes head time is the Wheeler’s estate agent Helen Givings, who is a bundle of neuroses. Older than Frank and April, she has adopted them as her favourite couple and earmarked them as potential friends for her schizophrenic son John, who lives in a nearby asylum, but who is allowed out for visits. Helen believes that by spending time with nice young people like the Wheelers, John will have a sniff of how normal life could be. She takes him and her ancient deaf husband Howard to visit Frank and April three times, and each visit is dominated by John’s rapid social unravelling. The book ends in Helen’s head, a blur of guilt and anaesthetizing domestic detail.

My question for the sadly now deceased Richard Yates is, where is April is in all this? We see her through Frank’s eyes, through Shep’s eyes and through Helen’s, and yet, despite the fact that she is the one character with a concrete plan, with a dream that she is actually going to follow through, we are never in her head. The only time we have April head space is in the last chapter, where she enacts her fatal self-abortion. Logically, I understand that she needs to remain opaque through the narrative in order to make this final act so overwhelmingly defeating and tragic. But as a woman, I feel enraged that she is silent until she kills herself by mistake.

Here, at the end of the novel, is what April has to say:

Then you discovered you were working at life the way the Laurel Players worked at The Petrified Forest, or the way Steve Kovick worked at his drums – earnest and sloppy and full of pretension and all wrong; you found you were saying yes when you meant no, and “We’ve got to be together in this thing” when you meant the very opposite, then you were breathing gasoline as if it were flowers and abandoning yourself to the delirium of love under the weight of a clumsy, grunting red-faced man you didn’t even like – Shep Campbell! – and then you were face to face, in total darkness, with the knowledge that you didn’t know who you were.

Although April believes she doesn’t know who she is, she has an active plan for her family to escape their stultifying life.  Her plan is to move to Paris, get a diplomatic job so that Frank can wander around the city and find himself. However, Frank has received a job offer at work for a much better position and he is absolutely torn between the Paris dream and the reality of an improved career. When April falls pregnant for the third time, this stifles her plan and allows Frank to consider his work offer. By aborting the baby, she is trying to stick to her plan, to save herself and her family, and on an emotional level, it absolutely enraged me that she had to die. By killing her off, no gender lines get imploded, Frank can advance his career, hand his children over to his older brother to look after and be free to continue to indulge himself. Problem solved.

Perhaps anything else is too much to expect from a mid-twentieth century male writer like Richard Yates, and I am being unfair. However I want to read and write novels where the patriarchy gets blown out of the water, novels where women change their lives, speak out loud in voices that aren’t always mellifluous, enact their dreams; novels where their breasts or the length of their thighs don’t get a mention; novels where they are allowed to know just exactly who they bloody well are.

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Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

15 thoughts on “Revolutionary Road

  1. interesting – i’ve seen the movie, but not read the book. the movie is very much about frank *and* april as two desperate characters, trapped in roles they don’t want to play, and both losing their way, but still clinging to the hope that things can be different, whilst trying to cling to each other. april is a very strong character, and very strongly portrayed by kate winslet. i really really enjoyed the movie, but from the way you describe it, i don’t think i’d like the book either!

  2. oh, and in the movie, april does die – but it’s shown as an act of real defiance, and we are left with the impression that it devastates frank’s life just as surely as it does her own.

    (at least that was my impression!)

  3. An interesting and heart-felt review. You wrote: “on an emotional level, it absolutely enraged me that she had to die.” That reminded me so much of my reaction to Clarissa. The abridged version, that I read in university, was still over 1000 pages. After all of Clarissa’s trials and tribulations, she finally escaped and had to die among her friends because she’d been “ruined” during the kidnapping and lock down situation she’d finally got out of. You wrote “However I want to read and write novels where…women change their lives, speak out loud in voices that aren’t always mellifluous, enact their dreams.” I’m with you on that.

  4. Wow. Thank you Charlotte. What a great review. I haven’t seen the movie or read the book. Funny thing, my sister saw the movie with her husband. Later they argued over who the film was about. She said, it was all about him and his wants and needs, his reputations and how he looked to others. My BIL said she was selfish, didn’t see the sacrifices he had made for the family. He felt she was a dreamer and that he was the stable crux that held the family together.

    How interesting.

  5. I too, have read the book, but not seen the movie. The book is grim, portraying the sociological landscape of the times…but yes, the book itself is also part of that landscape too, in the way that it treats the character of April.

    Good to hear, jen, that the movie takes a better path.

  6. Wow. I agree that killing her off at the end does seem pointless and much too neat. On the other hand, I also don’t quite see why a middle-class pregnant woman necessarily needs to abort an unborn child in order to move to Paris to ‘find herself’, especially when it they have other kids to provide for. I feel bad for any ambitious woman stuck in a 50s suburb, but once you have kids isn’t it time to grow up and stop taking ‘finding yourself’ risks that compromise your ability to feed them?

  7. If the spoiler irritated me that much (the content, not the review, which was great) I should probably stay away from the book … 😉

  8. Great review – I haven’t read the book but had intended to this year. There is a sad tradition of male novelists who enact the fate of society, or the implicity criminality of the male protagonists (both patriarchal) on the body of the woman, because the function of woman is to be a mirror. There was an awful lot of this about in the early 20th century. The thinking goes – society is sick. How do we know? Because women suffer. Watch. But as to why Yates never enters Alice’s head, I would guess that he simply had no idea what would be in it.

  9. The book certainly doesn’t sound like a Kate Winslet movie! Makes you realise how far a head of his time Ibsen was in some ways.

  10. I saw the movie a few weeks ago and M and I were both awestruck at it. Not for the plot line, but for how accurately it depicts a marriage gone bad, where both people don’t necessarily hate each other, but hate the roles they play and the lives they’re in.

    I viewed her abortion and subsequent death as an act of defiance – her trying to remove herself from her life in the only possible way she could, after she’d exhausted all the other avenues. If you think about Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and consider the female character in that book, they are quite similar in their wretchedness.

    I’d love to read this? Want to swap?

  11. “……….I want to read and write novels where the patriarchy gets blown out of the water, novels where women change their lives, speak out loud in voices that aren’t always mellifluous, enact their dreams; novels where their breasts or the length of their thighs don’t get a mention; novels where they are allowed to know just exactly who they bloody well are……….”.

    You would have to read novels by women to get this. A novelist, no matter how good, can rarely get inside the heads of their characters of their opposite gender, in the way they can with those of their own gender.

    Given Richard Yates’ gender, it follows that April’s character wouldn’t be as fully fleshed as that of Frank.

    I saw the film of “Revolutionary Road” first, and am within 50 pages of finishing the novel. I have found the film a good adaption of the novel, but, as with almost all films of novels, it can’t do full justice to the novel, since……well….how can any two-hour film do full justice to the 600 page novel on which it’s based?

    Which is why I try always to see the film first, then read the novel, to avoid disappointment. In the case of “Revolutionary Road” I let the film be my introduction to the novel. Thus I hugely enjoyed both.

  12. I’ve seen the film (which was excellent) but not read the book (which I still intend to). The film was absolutely beautiful in the way that so many of Sam Mendes’ films are, and made me wince at the accuracy of the observations. I doubt there was a thirtysomething in the audience who had not had conversations or thoughts similar to those in the film: who am I? why am I in this job? What happened to my potential? Who is this person I am married to?

    Great review – but have to agree with a previous commenter that you are unlikely to find a novel that blows patriarchy out of the water written by a man.

  13. There are shades of all the desperate women who were our mothers, grandmothers, aunties and unhappy, in Yates book, in that generation of the 1950’s. I haven’t read the book, haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not sure I want to – because while it seems Revolutionary Road is a book about suburban life in the 1950’s, I don’t like that April isn’t given a voice. I find that most unfair, but maybe Yates couldn’t write about her because he knew she was going to kill herself – whether by accident or no, she was desperate, but not desperate enough to break free completely. Hmm, I might have to read the book now. Maybe.

  14. Thanks for this review. It helps me decide that not only do I not terribly want to see the movie, I probably won’t read the book either. I too want to read a book where luminous eyes, perky breasts and long slender thighs are not mentioned except maybe in passing to elucidate what a creep the guy who is obsessing about them is. I am also tired of reading novels where the thought process of the serial killer is laid out in gory disgusting detail. I have gotten to the point where if I am so unaware as to start reading one that has that focus, I just stop reading it when the serial murderer’s thoughts are produced for our horror, delectation, whatever.

  15. B & I saw the movie together and left drained, if not irritated for all the reasons you mention. The characters were so focused (good for a movie, I suppose, you have to condense a lot into a little), the message so strong that it is unbearable and harrowing.

    The performances were brilliant. Your description is accurate but I am tired of the story. Whilst we need to understand history to avoid the patterns, I want to see the tools to move forward. I want the positive PR, not this constant tragedy. We all want hope.

    There is no hope in this movie. The children are even absent (not sure about the book). I stopped thinking as soon as I left the moviehouse.

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