Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

The cover of Revolutionary Road. It is a picture of a 50s-era care parked in front of a home. The image is slightly blurred and yellowed to look like an old photograph.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is an easy book to read, but a difficult book to review. With effortlessly beautiful writing and incredibly vivid characters, this book sucks you into the world of 1960s suburbia with all of its subtleties and quiet dramas. It is, in fact, the skill with which Yates develops his characters that makes this book so difficult to review and to completely enjoy.

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.

Rating: ?
Trigger warning for domestic abuse and emotional manipulation.

10 comments:

  1. What a thoughtful review. Thanks for posting!

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  2. Great review!

    The writing sounds fantastic, but I'm not sure if I'll pick this one up. Thanks for the heads-up about the intense parts.

    --Rayna

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  3. I know this sounds strange, but that makes it sound incredible. I love a book that can pull at your emotions like this one seems to have done. I have often wondered whether this is a book a would enjoy. Sometimes I find that some books are so American (The Great Gatsby, The Corrections) that I just identify with them at all, not being an American. I thought that this might be one of those. It sounds like it is much more about the character development than the American way of life though, so I will definitely look for it in the future

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  4. I read this one last year and I'm completely with you on that it's such a hard book to review and I'm still not really sure what to make of it! I think I skipped reviewing it because of that. This book is very, very dark and intense and completely messed up. I think I may have to reread it sometime to form a more coherent opinion of it.

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  5. I watched the first half of the film, and really didn't like it because it was so slow. But I think it would be much better as a book.

    Thanks for the thoughtful review of this one.

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  6. I enjoyed reading your review because I can see that the book really affected you. I was amazed at how the light, fluid writing added so many layers to a very sad, troubling story. I agree with you that one of the things that made it intense to read was how very real the characters were. There were many times while reading the book that it occurred to me that it wouldn't be a good reading experience for everyone. It's definitely a thought-provoking, challenging read.

    Btw, I watched the movie after reading the book and was very disappointed--there was none of the lightness, humor, or backstory...which made it just depressing. The storyline followed the book, I suppose, but it seemed to miss the whole point.

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  7. Love the cover of your copy, looks very vintage! I have this on my bookshelf but I always put it off. Your review was very honest, so thank for sharing :)

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  8. I felt the same way about the movie and wondered if the book would be any better.
    Ann

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  9. You know, this is a novel that I know I'll love, but I just haven't gone there. Same for the movie. I'll get to it one day, hopefully this year, but sheesh! I'm almost dreading it.

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  10. This is an excellent review!! I love how you've approached the novel and its prose. I agree completely with your analysis of that character - he was horrific! I don't think I've ever held as much passionate hatred towards him as any other character I've read or seen. While perusing the internet, however, I've discovered many people find more flaws in his spouse (her being narcissistic and passive), and are intent on criticising her and regarding him as merely a 'bad husband' or something along those lines. Although I love variant interpretation, I'm feeling strong signs of inherent sexism - that character was such a horrible guy. Although, it could just be me and my crazy feminist ideals. Your opinions?
    You're awesome by the way

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