In my dream I break the chains that hold this place together

22 11 2009

Cannonball Read II, Book 1: Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates (1961)

Well, I’ve FINALLY finished my first book! Huzzah! I read it for a class (Films and Literature), but it’s 462 pages, and it still counts (I started it EXACTLY on 11/1). I had seen the film in the theater when it came out, but had not yet read the novel,¬†and I thought it was a tremendously well-done movie, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s performances blew me away. (I was also stunned by my fellow theater patrons, who laughed at some of the most inappropriate moments.) Now I’ve read the book, I find it so much more thoughtful, so much deeper, so much more moving.

Fair warning: There is not a single character in this novel who is likeable. Not one. Frank and April Wheeler, our focal point, are horrible, selfish, self-centered, narcissistic jerks. Milly and Shep Campbell, their closest friends, are so caught up in their romanticized view of the Wheelers that they don’t even have their own personalities. Helen Givings, the real estate agent, is a judgmental busybody who is in no position to be either; her husband regularly turns off his hearing aid so he doesn’t have to listen to her inane ramblings, and her son is an inmate at the local nuthouse (and the only fully truthful person in the story, appropriately enough). The Wheelers’ children are accessories, shunted off to the Campbells’ as often through the story as they are at home.

The meat of the story, though- the disintegration of a marriage that perhaps should never have been in the first place; the slow and steady decline that begins to gather steam until it goes barreling headlong into utter annihilation- is so well told it’s all but impossible not to appreciate. Yates turns a beautiful, albeit depressing, phrase, and gives us consistent characters who are compelling, though they are definitely not endearing.

There’s a terrific significance to the opening scene- the failure of the new community theater group’s first performance- and its placement at the beginning of the narrative. It sets up the entire trajectory of the novel at the same time as being the catalyst for the events that unfold and a microcosmic view of the Wheelers’ full story. We come in towards the end of that tale, and we wonder how the couple got to this point. As the novel progresses, we discover that they were pretty much always at this point, they just didn’t know it.

Most of the people in my class felt sorry for Frank, felt that he was the more sympathetic character, citing his trying to make April feel better about the failure of the play, and her refusal to be made to feel better and her picking a fight with him. The thing of it is, though, she yells at him because she has asked him repeatedly to not talk about it, and he persists; he is trying to force her to feel better not for her sake, but for his own. The genius of placing this scene first in the book is that is sets up one of the major themes of the novel, which is acting; not acting in the sense of April being in the play, but rather how all of these characters are acting out their lives, rather than living them. Frank, first and foremost, doesn’t know how to be a man, and so he spends his every waking moment arranging himself as he thinks he should appear. The problem is, he’s a terrible actor. He screws up his lines, his stage positions, and most of all, his timing.He also doesn’t know not to step on the toes of the other actors in his little mind-play.

I loved reading this book. Not everyone will, because it is one of those books that centers on very unlikable characters. I just happen to like unlikable characters. I can tell you this: it made me a lot more appreciative of my fake husband, pseudo-Mr. vB, and the level of honesty that we share. Of course, it helps that we live as who we are, rather than always trying to present ourselves as something we’re not. And I certainly won’t be doing that after reading this, unless I want to end up like April Wheeler.


Sweet dream, or a beautiful nightmare

22 10 2009

Well, kids, here it is: A practice review. I don’t really do this on a regular basis, so I figured I’d take the book I just read for my class (Films and Literature) and work on my mad reviewing skillz- try to work out a rhythm to it, if you know what I mean. Also, I have difficulty determining what, exactly, constitutes a spoiler; I’m trying to work that out here, as well, so if you’ve read the book, please let me know if you think it’s spoiler-y.

The Book: “The Virgin Suicides”, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

The story begins with the suicide of the youngest of the five Lisbon sisters, Cecilia, and works its way through the year following, culminating in the self-inflicted deaths of the other four. What the story really follows, though, is the efforts of the narrators (the story is told from a first-person-plural point of view) to get to know these four girls by every method possible- except, that is, by talking to them. The plural narrator is a (group of) teenage boy(s), and the girls are teenage girls; they don’t speak the same language. The story also revolves around the deterioration of the well-to-do suburban neighborhood where all these characters live. The Lisbon house itself is slowly falling apart, and Dutch Elm Disease is blamed for the public works department cutting down all the trees on the block.

The meat of the narrative, though, at least to my mind, is the obsession the narrator(s) have with the Lisbon sisters, and the way that living in suburbia creates expectations of people that they can’t live up to and can’t escape. Trip Fontaine, the popular hot jock guy, winds up in a rehab facility in the desert somewhere, as much a ghost as any of the Lisbons. The narrator(s) are rehashing this story from decades after the fact; they live out their lives, but are still infatuated by their ideas of the girls, and where (if anywhere) those ideas are in relation to reality, discussing it still, “going over the evidence one more time”. They are only ghosts as well, living in the past, trying to find what it was that was so brilliant and beautiful, and forever finding it just out of reach. Even the neighborhood itself is gradually declining into a ghost of its former self, doomed to be a mere reflection of what was, and what could have been.

The experience of reading this novel is lovely. I know some people have found it weird and/or depressing, but I found it more melancholy than dismal, and Eugenides’ imagery is just gorgeous. It kind of evokes the way everything is so dreamy and surreal and beautiful when you’re a kid, with no experience of “real” life to get in the way; everything looks as if it’s an old photograph, misty and faded with time, which adds to the themes of the book. The descriptive passages alone are worth the read. I think the subtext is beautifully layered, though there were a few instances where it ran away with itself into cliche territory, but overall I enjoyed reading it, and I recommend it.

Well, there you have it. My very first book review.. um, ever. I hope it makes sense, and isn’t too spoiler-y (or not spoiler-y enough). Until next time, Beav out!

Hello world!

13 10 2009

Hello indeed! Well, I thought it might be easier to start a new blog for the Cannonball Read. (“Easier” being relative, of course.) So here it is! Have a look around. Don’t know how long the theme will stick, I’m pretty fickle like that, but I think it’s pretty. I’m working on figuring out what all these little widget-y things are for, so maybe I’ll add more of those too. New toys are fun!

So far, and for now, this will only be for the Cannonball Read, but perhaps, if I get used to it and like it enough, I’ll do other stuff with it as well. Who knows what the future holds here in BeaverWorld?!

*ETA: See? I found this theme with a rainbow-y header picture. Prettier!