April and Frank Wheeler are a young, ostensibly thriving couple living with their two children in a prosperous Connecticut suburb in the mid-1950s. Their self-assured exterior masks a creeping frustration at their inability to feel fulfilled in their relationships or careers. Determined to identify themselves as superior to the mediocre sprawl of suburbanites who surround them, they decide to move to France where they will be better able to develop their true artistic sensibilities, free of the consumerist demands of capitalist America. As their relationship deteriorates into an endless cycle of squabbling, jealousy and recriminations, their trip and their dreams of self-fulfillment are thrown into jeopardy. (goodreads)
Honestly, that summary doesn't do the book justice at all. Revolutionary Road is the picture of perfect character-building. From the very first chapter, the use of dialogue and short, clear passages of description give the reader an incredibly strong sense of who Frank and April Wheeler really are. Right away, I felt like I knew these characters, like I had met them a thousand times before. While this is itself a rare accomplishment, Yates takes this book to the next level by subverting the reader's first perceptions of the characters. By slowly adding chapters from the perspective of characters other than Frank, Yates gives the reader a different angle on Frank's character, his marriage to April, and his relationship with his neighbors and friends. Slowly, the reader discovers more depth to both April and Frank's already round characters, and not everything that is discovered is flattering.
It is this evolution of the reader's perception of the characters that makes this book so difficult to review or even completely enjoy. The truth is that there is one character who I absolutely hated more than I have hated any other character in any book, and possibly more than I've hated anyone in real life. I spent the whole book torn between wanting to know what happened next and wanting to throw the book across the room out of sheer anger and frustration with that character. In short, I wanted him to die in a fire. While I'll admit that it takes incredible skill to make a character so believably unlikable, and while I understand that the absolute horribleness of that character was crucial to the theme and plot, it also makes the book difficult to enjoy, or at least it did for me. I'm usually ok with unlikable characters, but this one hurt and frightened me on a deep emotional level, possibly because he was so real. Maybe I'm particularly sensitive to portrayals of spousal abuse and manipulation, but there were times when I considered just not finishing it, even though the writing was incredible. If it hadn't been required reading for a class, I might not have. That has never happened to me before, and I honestly don't know what to make of it.
To be honest with you, I still don't know how I feel about this book. The writing was beautiful, easy to read, and incredibly enjoyable. The characterization was among the best I've ever seen. But, despite those two amazing qualities, that one character and all the horrible things he did to another character made reading this book difficult. Because of that difficulty, I cannot recommend this book to wholeheartedly. While I think that a lot of people would greatly enjoy it, there are people I know who would find this book too disturbing and emotionally intense, and because of that I cannot recommend it to everyone. If you don't mind reading a book that has abuse, manipulation, and a seriously messed up character in it, then I would recommend this book as one of the best examples of writing and characterization I have ever read. If you think reading about those things would bother you, then you should definitely skip Revolutionary Road.
Trigger warning for domestic abuse and emotional manipulation.