Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Review: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961)

  After reading "Revolutionary Road" by Richard Yates, it is tempting to wonder if this is just another novel about suburban alienation in the 1960s.  On the surface Frank and April appear as a typically happy young couple with two kids and a nice house.  Frank works as a ad man for a machinery company and April stays at home.  Yates does not despise these characters and writes about them with compassion and understanding.  Frank, who once had ambitions for a career in the "humanities," feels hopeless about his future in a pointless job on Madison Avenue.  April is haunted by a painful childhood and longs for a life outside of the suburbs.

Divided into three parts, the second part follows their aborted plans to move to Paris.  To them, Paris is more of a symbol than a real place.  Frank associated the city with his time in the army, a time when he felt most alive. Both also see the city of light as a place with culture and not the blandness of their affluent suburb.  For a brief time it appears their marriage will survive, but the sheer boldness of their plan overtakes them.  Instead of a novel about breaking away from an unsatisfying existence, it becomes one of lost hopes.

Some of the sentiments in Revolutionary Road match those of David Riesman's 1950 classic study of American conformity, The Lonely Crowd.  Ironically, in the novel Frank and April are aware of their need of approval from their neighbors and the dangers of breaking away from social norms.  In one of Frank's most inspired moments he states, "The whole country's rotten with sentimentality . . . This steady, insistent vulgarizing of every idea and every emotion into some kind of pre-digested intellectual baby food; this optimistic, smiling-through, easy-way-out sentmentality in everybody's view of life."  These ideas foreshadowed cultural shifts in the 1960s, but remain quite relevant, in our even more anxiety ridden time.

Back to my original question, there is a compassion for the characters from Yates, but for the setting.  The novel's epigram from Keats, "Alas! when passion is both meek and mild!" is a great way of looking at all the characters.  Most are self-aware, but have something within that holds them back.  Above all this is a character study that is set in a particular time in American history, but not exclusive to that time.

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