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Book #26: Revolutionary Road

Have you ever wanted to reach through the pages of a book, grab a character by the neck, and verbally abuse that character with your darts of intellectual and moral wisdom?

I have.

April Wheeler might be one of the most complicated, perplexing, frustrating characters I’ve ever encountered in a novel. She’s selfish, egocentric, manipulative, lazy, cynical, hateful, and all sorts of other negative adjectives that I don’t have time to list. Her husband, Frank, is no saint. He has his share of issues—most notably, his inclination to cheat on his wife.

But Richard Yates writes these two characters in Revolutionary Road in such a way that I found myself totally pulled into the drama of Frank and April Wheeler.

The story is all about these two people—the Wheelers—as they cope with life as a young couple in the post-War 1950s, with two kids, living in the sameness of suburban America, and struggling to find meaning to their lives.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog several times, Revolutionary Road is a depressing story. Frank and April are selfish, extremely selfish, as parents. The kids in this story are afterthoughts who get caught up in the Wheeler family drama.

Frank hates his job. April hates Frank. Their two kids are scared of both of them. Depressed by their boring and self-proclaimed insignificant lives, they decide to move to Paris.

But life happens and the Wheelers are forced to put off the move to Europe, to “greener pastures” across the ocean. Bitterness, resentment, and anger sets in and their relationship slowly deteriorates. It’s a sad story.

Even so, Frank tries. He really tries. But he can’t get through to April. She says she doesn’t love him, and she never loved him. Frank is passionate, even in his mistakes. April is cold, unfeeling, indifferent. And therein lies the difference between the two.

In my preview of the book, Teresa commented that Revolutionary Road represented the beginning of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. Frank and April are by no means hippies, but their ideals have a rebellious element to them.

Really, they talk the rebellious talk, but they don’t walk the rebellious walk. They despise the sameness and unoriginality of modern America, but they live in a nice house on a nice street with a nice, white picket fence. Their hypocrisy is only overshadowed by their selfishness.

As for the author, Richard Yates is another beautiful prose writer. He’s clean,  crisp, imaginative.  Here is one of my favorite passages from the book in which April Wheeler discusses with a “friend” how she feels like her life has passed her by:

“I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere, as far ahead of me as the seniors at Rye when I was in the sixth grade; people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I’d suddenly know that I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I’d been meant to be one of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake; and they’d know it too. I’d be like the ugly duckling among the swans.”

And one more passage that absolutely blew me away, and you’ll understand what I mean if you read the book.

“The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves … A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place.”

Revolutionary Road has beautiful visuals. But the images Yates creates are sad, much like the prose he writes. The Wheelers’ empty, hollow house. Their lonely, cookie-cutter street. Their pretentious conversations with insecure friends. Yates really makes you feel their loneliness and desperation.

The beauty of this novel is its focus. There’s not a wide overcomplicated storyline. There’s not a complex flowchart of characters to keep up with. Outside of Frank and April, the book has only a few other characters of note.

Richard Yates, circa 1960. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Yates is certainly making a statement about the consequences of poor decisions and the power of loneliness. But it’s all right there, right in front of you.

Honestly, the problem with this story is the fact that I’m reading it in 2011. 50 years ago, this was groundbreaking stuff. But, these days, it’s been done before. I’ve read about the couple who got married too young, made poor decisions, resented having kids, and resented each other. On the outside, they are happy and cheery. On the inside, they can’t stand to be around each other.

The novel mirrors The Great Gatsby in many ways–the never-ending, seemingly fruitless pursuit of The American Dream. Kurt Vonnegut even called the book “The Great Gatsby of my time.” That’s powerful praise. In discussing the theme of his work, Yates said:

“If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”

He’s such an optimist, that Richard Yates.

So if you can appreciate a depressing, somewhat morbid novel, then you’ll appreciate Revolutionary Road. Remember, if an author manages to draw emotions out of you as a reader, even negative emotions, he is simply doing an effective job as a writer and storyteller. And that’s exactly what Richard Yates does in this novel.

I don’t really enjoy reading sad, depressing material. But if, at the end of the novel, I’m left to ponder why I care so much about these characters and why I feel a sense of despair over their unhappiness, then I’ve got to tip my hat to the author and say, “Well done.”

Sure, depressing stories aren’t always fun to read. But, if you’re going to read one, make it Revolutionary Road.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over their footlights of an empty auditorium.”

The Meaning: The Wheelers live on Revolutionary Road in the Revolutionary Hill Estates in suburban Connecticut. From the outside, their house, their lives, their middle-class family seems fine and dandy. But, internally, they’re marriage is falling apart at the seams as their own selfish pursuits become their focus. Ultimately, the story is about suburban hypocrisy and the pursuit of the American Dream.

Highlights:  Intense story with incredibly written characters. Very emotional novel with heart-wrenching scenes. Frank and April Wheeler’s desperation just oozes through Yates’ amazing prose.

Lowlights: Had I read this book 30 years ago, I would’ve loved it even more. It’s a story you’ve probably heard before, but Yates was one of the first to do it. At some point during this novel, you might feel like throwing the book (or Kindle, not suggested) across the room out of frustration…that’s because April Wheeler will drive you batty.

Memorable Line: “If you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.”

Final Thoughts: If you’re up for a sad story, then Revolutionary Road is an excellent choice. The novel starts sad and only gets sadder. It follows the same formula as Blood Meridian, except that it’s not the violence that keeps increasing—it’s your depression as you read the book. Powerful, intense story. Don’t let the sadness turn you off. You don’t want to miss Richard Yates’s writing.

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44 Comments Post a comment
  1. Eddie #

    If you HAD read this book 30 years ago, would you have even understood it? Or for that matter could you read at the age of 5?

    Sorry… trying to be funny. Great review. The movie was sooo depressing. Not sure I could stomach these two characters in written form.

    Like

    September 19, 2011
  2. I thought it was sort of more along the lines of fatalism. I.e. this is what the American Dream, or pursuit of it, does to our psyches. Also, don’t bother watching the movie. It is EXACTLY like the book. I don’t even believe they wrote a screenplay, they just read the book aloud.

    Like

    September 19, 2011
  3. Teresa #

    I would not have wanted to sit through this in 2 hours at the movies! It was hard enough talking myself into picking it up for 30 minutes at a time. My speed reading through the depressing first chapters helped me to gain distance from the characters. The last 60 pages, though, was killer.

    My visualized abuse of April Wheeler is a solid shaking rather than a verbal thrashing … well, … maybe both. As for Frank Wheeler, infidelity aside, I felt some sympathy for him. He did try. That said, he also deserved a good shaking – especially when he put his foot in his mouth re. children.

    I was impressed with character depth of the Givens and Campbells. He could have easily developed books about each of them. (But actually, one Yates book is enough for me!)

    Like

    September 19, 2011
    • I agree. Frank was sympathetic. He tried so hard.

      Like

      September 19, 2011
  4. Mlkquetoast nailed my reaction: Fatalist not necessarily depressing.

    After finishing the book, I planned to watch DVD. In the end I decided not to watch it as I did not want anything to distract from the book.

    It seems that when a really good book on a really good subject is written, it transcends time easily. To wit, the book’s setting is the same as it is now.

    Four star book.

    Like

    September 19, 2011
    • Agree. It’s very relevant, even today. I’d probably give it 3.5 stars.

      Like

      September 19, 2011
  5. I know you said this was a sad one, but I really want to read this!

    Like

    September 19, 2011
  6. This is definitely going on my wish list.

    Like

    September 19, 2011
  7. Gemma Sidney #

    I really enjoyed this review, Robert. I am also a fan of the book… but not of the movie. It just didn’t come together for me. As milquetoast7 said, the movie dialogue does closely resemble the book. Maybe that’s why I was peeved… it just seemed forced.

    Anyway, my point – great review. Made me want to revisit the novel. Thanks!

    Like

    September 20, 2011
    • Awesome. Thanks, Gemma.

      I saw the movie a few years ago and it’s interesting that I kept hearing Dicaprio’s voice when I read Frank’s dialogue.

      Like

      September 21, 2011
  8. Kim #

    Re wanting to reach through a book and grab a character: just wait until you read Atonement and meet Briony. I wanted to throttle her.

    Like

    September 22, 2011
  9. I haven’t read the book, but I felt there was a lot of emotional violence in the movie. It was just as hard to take as physical violence in another movie.

    And I agree with you re: April Wheeler…such a cold and selfish personality.

    Like

    September 22, 2011
  10. Amy #

    I disagree with most of the comments. I did not find either of the characters, Frank or April, particularly sympathetic or likeable. I don’t think that was what Yates was going for. No one in the book is very likeable but he is trying to show you the trap that the characters are in.

    Although April is not a sympathetic character, Yates provides an empathetic portrayal of her plight. She does not want to be a mother and it is this that drives most of the narrative. For me, this book is about abortion and the fact that in the 1950s women like April and many others did not have legal access to reproductive services. Illegality often left them with no choice and this is April’s situation. Frank, who does not really want children either but cannot admit this because of his ego, manipulates April into continuing her third pregnancy.

    Frank “trying” consists of sleeping around and using psychological warfare against April. I don’t see why many of you find him a more likeable character. In the movie which must externalize much of the novel’s internal drama. April does become more sympathetic because Frank is such a dog.

    Like

    September 26, 2011
  11. My speed reading through the depressing first chapters helped me to gain distance from the characters. The last 60 pages, though, was killer.

    Like

    October 8, 2011
  12. PONS Idiomas #

    Hola, quizás os interese saber que tenemos una colección que incluye el relato ‘Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired’ de Richard Yates en versión original conjuntamente con el relato ‘A Small, Good Thing’ de Raymond Carver.

    El formato de esta colección es innovador porque permite leer directamente la obra en inglés sin necesidad de usar el diccionario al integrarse un glosario en cada página.

    Tenéis más info de este relato y de la colección Read&Listen en http://bit.ly/ndSymF

    Like

    October 17, 2011
  13. Popping on here now because I wanted to let you know I’m reading this right now. Actually I put in a bunch of requests at the library for books from your rankings because I need 8 more this month to reach my goal of 60 this year. So far, this book? Wow.

    Like

    December 6, 2011
    • Awesome. Let me know what you think of it when you’re finished.

      Like

      December 7, 2011
  14. Kyle #

    I am new to this blog (It’s awesome!) and having just read Revolutionary Road myself, I thought I would check out what you thought about it. I agree that Yates’ writing is great, especially, I think, in dialogue. He is also very good in transitioning between present and past. A lot of characterization takes place with this technique, and one of those scenes I thought was absolutely incredible, as well as devastating.

    The scene is late in the book where April remembers a visit from her father. The visit is short and April is heartbroken because of it. Reading it for the first time, I immediately felt compassion for her, and I have to disagree with your criticism of her character. I think this scene embodies why April is the way she is: she doesn’t know what love is. Her parents gave her up and yet she remarks in the book that she loves them, even though Frank doesn’t understand it because they were never really her parents. This explains her relationship with her children as well; she knows she’s supposed to love them but she truly doesn’t (explaining her indifference to the effect of moving to France on them and her indifference to them in general). And when Frank defines insanity as “…the inability to relate to another human being. It’s the inability to love,” she laughs. I think this is her moment of epiphany, and we get a glimpse of this feeling in an excerpt of a draft of her letter to Frank shortly after. On the surface, Yates’ novel is about the disillusionment of the American Dream, but I also think it’s about the disillusionment of the self. April and Frank were never going to be happy together because they never found out who they were as people. April discovers that she was never loved and realizes that what she thought she loved, what she thought love is, is false.

    I’m sorry for all of the (probably over-) analysis, but I really loved the book and I just wanted to share. I look forward to more of your posts and reviews!

    Like

    May 30, 2013
  15. fsfsfsfsfasfaf #

    “Even so, Frank tries. He really tries. But he can’t get through to April. She says she doesn’t love him, and she never loved him. Frank is passionate, even in his mistakes. April is cold, unfeeling, indifferent. And therein lies the difference between the two.”

    Just no. The reverse is true. April wants entertainment and excitement. She wants to have fun. To be vibrant. To enjoy life. To shine and burn and to be red hot. She had dreams. She wanted to be an actress. She slowly had to give up on her dreams. Frank is a stiff hypocrite who’s too cowardly to do much ANYTHING. And April truly and honestly HATES him for that. She wants to do things and go places and see things, but she got stuck with this bum, who immobilizes her. Yes, April is selfish. But so is Frank, even more so. The difference being: she doesn’t hide her selfishness behind a facade. He does. Ugh, give a man a female character to analyze and he misses by a fucking mile.

    Are you f-ing kidding me about April and her “inability to love”? She HATES the life they are leading. She hates her kids. Hates her husband. And wants to punish them for it. She laughs because the fact that this bum of a man who doesn’t really love anyone but his boring self is saying that to her — a woman who’s red hot on the inside with passion that’s being stifled and is wasting away — is laughable to her. She doesn’t realize crap about her “inability to love.” She IS capable of love. She just DOESN’T love her husband or her kids or the life they are leading.

    Like

    August 22, 2013
    • fsfsfsfsfasfaf #

      April is stuck and wants out. She knows she wants something… else, but doesn’t really know what it is (adventure, excitement, fun, just SOMETHING!) or how to get it.

      Like

      August 22, 2013
  16. This book is still my number one -but I am intrigued by your response to April – that is the exact same response I had to Frank. Is this a case of a woman finding it easier to identify with the woman and the man with the man? Strange.

    Like

    December 2, 2013
  17. Tino #

    I love your review and I don’t mind getting depressed as long as I can later read a happier story to lift my spirits. For now I will read the book ready to weep

    Like

    August 3, 2014
  18. Ashley Rideout #

    I completely disagree with your analysis of April. On a superficial level, she may come off that way. However, I think what Yates was trying to show was what the American dream (and role of housewife) does to the female psyche (especially for creative types) and how she reacts to her societal role. I truly believe April would have moved forward with their Parisian plan but didn’t because of her pregnancy. She wanted to express herself, feel and matter, in an increasingly world in which she had little influence, power, or control. She was willing to risk her health (which of course, in the end, resulted in the end of her life) in order to pursue her “fantasy” of living abroad. The risk of her health, marriage, etc. was not as great as the risk of not living (feeling/truly making a difference, etc.) at all. She may have been a static character but she carried a powerful message (warning.)

    Like

    August 8, 2015

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