Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Roadbook by Richard Yates

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

This book was such a great read on so many levels. I got into it right away with the theater group, with a few wistful memories toward a teen reading of Marjorie Morningstar . But Yates manipulated that fifties nostalgia, proving that all of the hopes and dreams of the theater troupe turned out to be nothing but blue gel romance and it was really just another suburban disappointment. It was interesting that Yates took us here first, like a wide view of a small town before honing in on the intensity of April and Frank’s marriage. Each step forward brings us into their close world so that once we are inside the marriage we get a wonderful theatrical feeling of claustrophobia. First the troupe, then the social tension with canceling an evening with the Campbells, then we are in the car in one of those wretched fights of a bad marriage that doesn’t make any sense but goes back to the beginning of the relationship. It is obvious, from here that this is not about two people working out their problems, it is about two people trying like hell to ignore them and to forge forward with a normal semblance of life.

Yates was able to take simple and familiar elements of the suburban environment and have them reflect his character’s inner struggles. I could write a five page paper about Frank’s stone walk. Yates captured the humidity, the stupid backbreaking work of getting nowhere and not only the pain of the task, but the frustration that sets in when he realizes that he has accomplished nothing. The stone sitting too high after so much labor and the children observing this was such a fantastic “aarrgh!” Without having to say it, Yates gives us that David Byrne, “My God, how did I get here?” A thing of literary beauty.

This one scene in Revolutionary Road was enough to remind me to pay attention to what I can exploit more in my characters’ environment.

Yates revealed April to us carefully, in increments. Toward the beginning, we are given her difficult background, the fact that she’s a bit cold because of it and the fact that these two can’t seem to find each other because they manage to turn away at exactly the moments they should have been reaching out. His technique of putting in conversations the way Frank would have wanted them to go is a lot of fun. I’m thinking of stealing it, to show how difficult it is for my hero to find purchase in their new world, but I’ve got to introduce the erraticness of their real conversation first.

April’s plan for Paris and the fever that both she and Frank catch for it is gorgeously written. Here is where we get the first inkling the girl may be off her nut and here is where we get the sense that Frank might actually really love her. He is so happy to see her happy and she is so enthusiastic, that the two get riled up together, both so grateful to be in agreement about something, that they spin it into giddiness. And through this frenzy and hope, and joy, Yates lets us know somehow that we are truly in a tragedy and these two are headed somewhere really awful. The title itself lets us know that despite putting their house on the market and telling everyone they know, they are never going to leave Revolutionary Road.

John Givings is such a great character and so well written. Givings enters like Lear’s fool and calls it like it is. Of course it is the insane man that sees that their trip to Europe is a great idea. Frank observes this and here is where the doubt for him sets in. Givings also creates a great turn of angle on the view of his parents. We had seen Mrs. Givings as interfering, well meaning neighbor, and her husband as dotty and disconnected but her son’s view of her exposes her for the fraud she is: just trying to make nice and impress. Howard’s reaction to his son’s misbehavior and his irritation with his wife lets us know that there is a lot more going on with him than we’d first thought. Mrs. Giving’s life revolves around making things nice and Yates is careful to wrap the story up with her. Mrs. Giving is the voice of Revolutionary Road, smoothing over the suburban morass. We end with her cutting off visits with her son and of course, with Howard turning off his hearing aid.

The tension around the final climax was so cleverly built. I did love Frank’s big-man thoughts as he went to break up with his tootsie. It seems he didn’t really need a new job or a new life, just a promotion and for his wife to be nice to him. He is so together when he goes home to find his wife completely unhinged, it’s a great contrast. Yates captured the drama of an all-night fight, when everything comes out and time takes on peculiar proportions and how, finally, a body needs sleep. Frank’s hoping it was all a dream the next morning was such a nice detail and completely true to the surreal qualities a midnight fight carries. Once April fixed him breakfast, I was sure she was just going to kill herself. Suicide’s such a constant literary device, so her different approach was a nice twist. She didn’t want to die, she just didn’t want to have another child.

Brilliant, too, was Frank’s reflection after arguing with April to keep the baby, that it might be a kid he didn’t even want. We had gotten no sense of his having any real affection for his children, so it was obvious from the beginning that this deep month-long argument was simply based in his wanting to win. There are so many layers to a marriage, particularly a bad one, and Yates was so careful to show it through circumstance and dysfunction rather than calling it like it was. He could have said outright, “she was incapable of love because of her childhood, he was trapped because of the children ” but it would have said so much less about these two than their wrangles, poor decisions, brief hopes and self destructiveness.

This book an incredibly useful reminder that to make a relationship between two people real, all of the layers and subtleties need to be addressed.

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