I just finished Revolutionary Road last night, and I’m pretty much shaken to the core. This is one tragic novel about a couple discontent with what is labeled the American Dream. Richard Yates writes beautifully throughout this novel. Every page had insights that made me laugh, cringe and reflect on universal truths. From the outset, the main characters of Frank and April Wheeler are drawn so realistically that we are inside their skin, and it is often a disconcerting place to be.
The novel starts off with April Wheeler acting on stage in a community play, and this theme of acting resonates throughout the novel. She is unhappy with her performance, and the whole ensemble’s effort in the production. On the way home, Frank tries to console April, but she wants none of it and they have a huge fight that unearths much more than a stage performance. Many novels don’t get moving until 100 pages in, but Revolutionary Road had me absorbed in the first ten pages.
The depiction of their house and the neighborhood of Revolutionary Road is well drawn. Frank’s discontent over suburban life and working at a job he has never liked percolates throughout. April ponders who she really is and how she came to end up a suburban mother of two kids. When she suggests they should throw up everything and move to Paris, the Wheelers feel a bit of audacious hope that they will break out of their purgatorial lives. Friends and neighbors aren’t sure how to comprehend the Wheeler’s attempt to transcend the rat race and make something of their lives. The friends respond with disbelief and envy, except for a neighbor’s mentally ill son, who appears to understand too clearly.Unfortunately, before the Wheelers can finalize their plans and pack up their bags, their best laid plans unravel in a tragedy of massive proportions.
Novels and short stories that explore the dark side of suburban angst have always been a genre that has hit me hard. Raymond Carver, John Cheever, AM Homes, and John Updike are a few writers I admire who have written of these suburban surroundings. I used to joke that I always wanted to write the great American novel, but then I read “Rabbit Run” and realized Updike had already done it. I believe Yates may have topped Updike in this regard. Revolutionary Road is the darkest and most tragic novel I’ve ever read, but it also may be the best.
Note: I have seen the 2009 film Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. From what I recall, the film is pretty faithful to the novel, though Yates is obviously able to put us into the minds of the characters more than was possible in the film. I’m very interested to re-watch the film now and see how it compares to the book.