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.