Revolutionary Road


I haven’t thought too much about Revolutionary Road since finishing it back in February, but not unintentionally. I can’t think about Revolutionary Road. Reading it nearly sent me into a full on emotional crisis. I was questioning everything about my life and whether I was happy or could be happy or was living up to my potential or my relationship’s potential or was maybe everything really just bullshit after all? Was I lying to myself and was I doing it as well as Richard Yates’s volatile couple, Frank and April?

The book–which was released in 1961 and loved by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Kurt Vonnegut before being more or less forgotten until the film adaptation in 2008–is a story about suburban malaise and the broken promises of the American Dream.

Frank and April Wheeler live in a tidy Connecticut suburb. Frank works in a boring, meaningless office job in the city. April stays at home, playing house and raising their two children. Neither of them are happy, and neither of them know what to do about it. The novel plays out in a series of explosive arguments between the two as they look for an escape from the white-picket prison they find themselves in.

As the book delved deeper into themes of disillusionment and identity, it became increasingly difficult to get through. I couldn’t bring myself to pick the book up for an entire weekend because it depressed me too much. I left it sitting untouched on my bedside table. I’d look at it, considering it, before shaking my head no. “No, not tonight,” I’d think, “I can’t. Maybe tomorrow.”

Finally, on a Monday morning I was able to pick it up again, reading it amid the bustle of my morning commute. At home that night, I raced through it to the end in a mad dash to see where the story would take me. Where would April and Frank end up? What would I see when I reached the end? Would it be myself?

Anyone who’s read the book will understand the frightening melodrama in that thought. No one wants to see themselves in that relationship. Even at the time I knew the thought was ridiculous, and it had less to do with the plot and more to do with the emotional rut I was in. But still. The fear was there.

In the book’s difficult final scenes, I somehow managed not to shed a tear. This is surprising for me because (as you’ll soon see if you keep reading these reviews) I’m a crier, and I always have been. My favorite books tend to tear me up inside, and I avoid reading them in public when I suspect a rough patch might be coming. But not with Revolutionary Road. There was just a sort of… deadness. Which I suppose is actually pretty fitting considering what the characters wrestle with. But it was also satisfying.

My only real complaint is that while the novel shifted perspective, I felt that entirely too much of it was focused on Frank instead of April. It wasn’t that I wanted less of Frank, but that I thought there should have been more of April. I wanted her side of the story to carry exactly equal weight to Frank’s. It was disappointing to see Frank so favored over her and I still have a hard time understanding why this was the case.

It’s certainly clear to me that neither Frank nor April is meant to be a villain. Neither one is right or wrong, they’re just two people grappling to come to terms with who they are in a marriage that’s constantly threatening to disintegrate. For that, I applaud Yates (especially when considering when this was written).

But it wasn’t quite enough. I think the disproportionate amount of focus on Frank’s inner dialogue runs the risk of having more readers identify with him and vilify April. And that is something I have a major problem with.

But ultimately, I loved this book. It hit the sweet spot for me in my reading preferences: realistic, dramatic literary fiction. Yates’s use of language is lovely, and for however flawed the characters were, I empathized with them. It might frighten me to compare myself or my relationship to one so dysfunctional, but I think it’s only human to understand what it’s like to compare reality with your image of what you thought your life would be or what it was expected to be. We all have to deal with such confrontations eventually; we’re just not all quite so doomed to shatter once we do.

[updated from original posting on 3/25/14]