The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

From 2008 until 2010, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was ubiquitous. It was the book in every bag at the airport, on every lap on the train, and eternally checked out at the library. The Pulitzer it earned that year probably didn’t help if you were hoping for its buzz to die down.

Junot Díaz’s book was taking the world by storm, which should have meant I had a lot of expectations going in, but it didn’t. I can’t remember what made me first decide I wanted to read it—probably the Pulitzer if anything.

The story ended up being more than I could have ever anticipated. The story of a lonely nerd, strained family ties, love and sex, and the violent history of the Dominican Republic all rolled into one neat package.

Poor Oscar, our titular hero, is fat, awkward, and way too into Dungeons and Dragons for his own good. Worse yet, he’s Dominican—meaning he can’t quite fit into the model of the white nerd and he definitely can’t compete with the machismo so prevalent in depictions of Dominican masculinity. He’s adrift, unable to connect fully with either side, and not even the omniscient voice that narrates his story can seem to make sense of him at times.

Which brings me to the first thing I absolutely loved about this introduction to Díaz’s writing: the language. There’s a show I occasionally listen to called Snap Judgment and its tagline is “storytelling with a beat.” Every sentence I read, that phrase ran through my mind.

Oscar Wao is positively lyrical. Some passages seem as at home on the page as they would on the stage of a slam poetry night. Take this description of Oscar’s mother:

“Before there was an American Story, before Paterson spread before Oscar and Lola like a dream, or the trumpets from the Island of our eviction had even sounded, there was their mother, Hypatía Belicia Cabral: a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewhere.”

The rhythm that runs through it pulses like a heartbeat and it’s absolutely intoxicating. It wasn’t hard to understand the love for this book.

There was something else, too—an even simpler facet: Díaz writes in Spanish regularly throughout the book and not once does he ever bother to translate it for the reader. I could not have been happier with this decision.

In stark contrast to Midnight in Mexico which constantly translated its Spanish passages creating cumbersome and unwieldy paragraphs, Díaz trusts us. He’s banking on his audience either knowing Spanish, or being smart enough to look it up for themselves.

Personally, I never needed to. My grasp of Spanish was juuust strong enough to, when paired with context clues, carry me through. This is what I’d wanted out of Corchado’s book. But I digress.

Love for this book aside, I just didn’t have that experience myself. I loved the writing and found the story interesting and I learned more about the Dominican Republic than I ever expected to know. But I wasn’t excited to pick it up. I didn’t have that emotional connection to the characters that so defines the books I love.

It was difficult to put my finger on why this was the case. The concept of fuku, which receives a lot of attention, never really hooked me, and I found myself considerably less engrossed in the flashback chapters dealing with Oscar’s mother and the origins of the family curse. But I’m not really willing to make the commitment and say that those scenes didn’t work.

Díaz’s writing is just too good.

When I try to understand why I couldn’t get excited about Oscar Wao, I wonder if it’s just more of a man’s story, a story that just speaks to something specific within men that just didn’t capture with me. The thing near the core of Oscar’s story, about what it means to be a man in this world, I don’t know why it didn’t reach me.

Yes, we get glimpses of what life is like for his sister and we learn a great deal about his mother, but I still read those passages as if I were only casually passing by.

What did work for me—the references to nerd culture, the longing, the in-your-face vivacity of the narrator, the in-depth exploration of the Dominican Republic’s history—made this well worth while. It’s not a favorite, but it’s not one I could pass up recommending, either.

Everything I Never Told You

When I opened Everything I Never Told You I wasn’t prepared for how hard or how fast I’d fall in love. It was magic. Fireworks. A lightning bolt to the heart. It was the electric feeling that reminds me why I read.

The buzz around Celeste Ng’s debut novel was palpable when it hit the shelves last summer, and I quickly added it to my list expecting to get around to it “eventually.” I was delighted this year when I realized it would fit within my personal challenge and a rave review from a friend solidified its spot on my reading list.

The first lines tell you just about everything you need to know:

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”

The “they” here—Lydia’s mother, father, sister, and brother—will become the stars of the story as they struggle to understand and accept Lydia’s death. Through shifting perspectives, we inhabit each family member fully until it’s impossible not to feel like you know each and every one of them.

Everything I Never Told You isn’t just about loss, but race, gender, sexuality, and the weight of expectations that come with being one of the “first”—whether it’s the first woman in a chemistry class, the first nonwhite professor on university staff, or the first child to go to college.

Ng’s powerful use of language packs the kind of emotional punch that lands with a sick thud right in the gut.

The chapter when Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, remembers her once-bright future as a medical student affected me the most. In Marilyn, I remembered my own mother asking me when I was 16 if I’d sign up for physics, just for her, because when she was in school “that was just for boys.” She wasn’t allowed to take it.

So when Marilyn thinks of her life without her family—

”Without a husband, without children, perhaps it would have been possible. I could have done that, Marilyn thought, and the words clicked into place like puzzle pieces, shocking her with their rightness. The hypothetical past perfect, the tense of missed chances. Tears dripped down her chin.”

—I shudder and feel the tears rolling down my own cheeks.

In the end, this was a book I hated to put down. I always wanted to make time for one more sentence, one more page. I borrowed my copy and already know I’ll be buying it. It’s by far my favorite book I’ve read this year, and I can’t wait to read what Ng writes next.

The Shining Girls

After a string of books that left me feeling exhausted both mentally and emotionally, it was time for a break. I wanted some literary equivalent of pop rocks: bright, snappy, and done in a flash. Enter, The Shining Girls.

Lauren Beukes’s 2013 novel was the poppy, page-turning summer read I was looking for. Set in Chicago, we meet time-traveling serial killer Harper Curtis and spunky victim-cum-survivor, Kirby Mazrachi. Harper’s power to flit in and out of time makes him seemingly impossible to catch, and the book leads us to wonder not just if Harper can be stopped, but how Kirby will ever figure out who attacked her and why she survived.

It was the conceit that completely drew me in. A man out of time who instead of learning about the worlds he finds himself in, learns everything he can about his next victims, his “shining girls.” Their habits. Their tics. Their likes and dislikes. Their daily routines. Everything he can until it’s time to strike, promising as always to come back for them on another day, in another time.

Beukes uses this idea to play with perspective. Alternating chapters between Harper and Kirby are expected and effective, but what I appreciated most was her decision to give each victim a chapter of her own, from her point of view, as well.

When you’re writing a book about murdered women, I think this step is crucial. Without it, the bodies stack up and mean nothing. They’re just gore and shock and horror and the death of a woman is used as set dressing and quite frankly, we live in a world that just doesn’t need any more reinforcement of the idea that the destruction of women’s bodies is “just for fun.”

Beukes humanizes these victims. Her writing is just strong enough to let the deaths pack a punch. When these victims die, it’s not horrific because it’s graphic (though it typically is graphic). It’s horrific because for just a moment, we learned something about their hopes and dreams—their innermost lives—before seeing them snuffed out forever. And because we’re floating through time, we see all manner of women throughout Chicago’s history, from the Great Depression to punk.

This is not to say that Beukes’s writing is without its missteps. In fact, many of the book’s most awkward moments come from the time-travel aspect. In an attempt to highlight what era we’re in, Beukes latches onto key historical moments, which works well with WWII. But when we get to a literal mention of Roe v. Wade, it starts feeling over the top. I don’t need to know the most pressing issues of the day to know what year it is. Thankfully, these moments are spread out.

My only other issue came with some of Beukes’s decisions regarding how several relationships were played out. Things essentially fell apart for me toward the end, leaving me scoffing or rolling my eyes during parts of the climax instead of cheering.

But I’d still put The Shining Girls ahead of Gone Girl, which I think was written about as well, but frustrated me far more. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s scary. In short? It’s everything a summer beach read should be.

The House on Mango Street

Even if you hadn’t already read it in freshman english. Even if you didn’t already know Sandra Cisneros’s poetry. Even if it hadn’t already been the pick for One Book, One Chicago. You’d know with a minute of picking up The House on Mango Street that it was pure poetry.

Another title where I’m not sure how it slipped by my literary education—I knew nothing about it until I picked it up for the first time this year.

It almost seems unfair to review it as a novel, considering how short it is (a mere 110 pages), but then that’s a limiting way to judge a book. Written in 1984 and set in my hometown, The House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes told from the perspective of a young latina named Esperanza Cordero. In each chapter, she provides commentary on her neighborhood, her friends, her family, and the desire for a better life.

As short as each vignette is (some just a handful of sentences), together they create a rich picture of a specific time and place in Chicago’s history. Cisneros’s words breathe life into Esperanza’s world in a way that feels like you could almost reach out and touch it.

Mango Street fell short of a home run for me, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think it just didn’t fall within the realm of what I typically love (a meatier text, richer prose), but it was still easy to see how it made it into the canon.

Cisneros’s writing is absolutely beautiful and every now and then, one of the vignettes would drop this beautiful little jewel of truth that really hit home for me, as in the chapter, “A Smart Cookie:”

“Then out of nowhere:
Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Beacuase I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.
Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.”

In the book, so many of Esperanza’s experiences with womanhood were the ones that resonated with me. Cisneros has a knack for distilling the experience of growing up as girl into these truly brilliant moments that transcend race and class (though the way she illuminates those nuances is equally brilliant). In those moments, I felt like we really understood each other.

Even though I can’t say this was a favorite or that I loved it, The House on Mango Street is such a rewarding, quick read that I have to recommend it as something everyone should pick up. When even the slowest reader could finish it in an afternoon, there’s really nothing standing in your way.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Who would I be at the bottom of a well wrapped up in darkness so absolute that time and space seem not to exist? Who would I be in the dark? I don’t know, but Haruki Murakami has me asking the question with a seriousness that felt impossible to imagine before reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

It almost feels like a disservice to even try to explain what Chronicle is about. It’s so much like a dream, where everything feels real until you reach the end of a chapter and then you’re not sure if it all really happened.

Ostensibly, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru Okada’s search for his missing cat, which then becomes a search for his missing wife. Along the way, he simultaneously retreats deeper within himself and forms connections with a cast of bizarre characters who then populate his increasingly bizarre world. From the mysterious psychic Malta Kano to a WWII veteran with dark tales of the war to a morbid 16-year-old girl, Toru drifts from one encounter to the next as he tries to unravel the mystery of where his wife has gone and how to get her back.

This being my first experience with Murakami, I didn’t know what to expect from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The first few pages did their best to let me know that this would be anything but typical, but I think about 100 pages into the novel, I realized that the chapter titles might be even better at getting at the overall theme of the book.

Every chapter had a multipart title such as “Tuesday’s Wind-Up Bird / Six Fingers and Four Breasts” or “Magic Touch / Death in the Bathtub / Messenger with Keepsakes,” which never made much sense. It was only after reading each chapter, then flipping back to the beginning to reread the title that you could understand its meaning.

It reminded me of the way a dream feels both real and mysterious until you wake up and begin to see how all the mundane parts of your day burrowed their way into your brain while you slept. Then it all seems to plain and so simple. It makes sense without needing to make sense.

Ultimately, it’s just one of many ways that Murakami is playing with your sense of reality. He puts you in this dreamlike state of confusion and uncertainty and then populates your world with unreliable narrators and unreliable narratives within unreliable narratives in a way that builds until by the end of the book, you feel completely unsure of what actually happened. But by this point, you also know it doesn’t matter.

What really matters are the questions you ask yourself, what he can force you to think about or reconsider. As Toru recounts at one point,

It was reality. True reality. But each time I recognized that fact, reality felt a little less real. Reality was coming undone and moving away from reality, one small step at a time. But still, it was reality.

I was completely wrapped up in the writing. I hadn’t really felt that way about any book since House of Leaves, and I loved it. It felt like an exploration of what a novel could be—how it could break the rules—and what it really means to be human. It’s weeks later and there are still mysteries in the text left to be unraveled.

I’m not even sure I know what the wind-up bird is, but I’m in love with the question.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle falls squarely in that subset of books that have me hungry to read more. I don’t know what Murakami I’ll pick up next, but I know I can’t wait to see what I ask myself when I’m done.

Sula

Sula, Sula, Sula.

Oh, Sula.

My heart ached reading Toni Morrison’s second novel.

In it, I saw shades of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (a personal favorite) and the melodrama of Douglas Sirk. Centered around the lives of two little girls in 1930s Ohio, Sula explores the power of friendship, betrayal, and perception. Upstanding, obedient Nel and wild child Sula have the kind of friendship that seems to only exist between children. They are inseparable. They complete each other. They are a force. And soon, they are bonded even more closely by a terrible secret.

Not content to stay in their aptly named home, The Bottom, grownup Sula makes a break for it as soon as she can. When she finally returns, Nel is married with kids of her own and their happy reunion is marred by a betrayal that threatens to end their friendship forever.

Having read Beloved and The Bluest Eye in high school, I almost wonder if Sula might be the better introduction to Toni Morrison. Less epic than Beloved, quicker than The Bluest Eye, I could see how Sula would be more palatable. But then as soon as I think that, I remember the weight of it and feel baffled that any high schooler reads any Morrison at all.

She’s one of those rare authors who just feels prolific in everything she creates. Sula is a short book, but in just 174 pages, Morrison is talking about all of America and the black experience and what it means to be a woman and the very nature of good and evil. I am bowled over by her scope.

I was easily sucked in by her beautiful writing, too. The beauty just brought the whole world alive for me, even with the smallest details, like:

“When Eva spoke at last it was with two voices. Like two people were talking at the same time, saying the same thing, one a fraction of a second behind the other.”

or:

“Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. . . . And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.”

But what struck me the most wasn’t any one phrase or passage, but a thought.

It occurred to me midway through the book how essential race is to any piece of realistic fiction about African Americans. I know, I know—not exactly earth shattering stuff. But in that thought, I was hit by another and I think it was the first time I really understood the privilege I have. A book that reflects my experience has the luxury of ignoring race if it wants to. Morrison doesn’t have that luxury. For a book to attempt to reflect her experiences but to leave out race would be to cut out a part of her. It’s one of those forces with the power to shape everything. And while I know this, I don’t think it had ever completely sunk in before.

With that, I already had my first concrete sign of my experiment doing its job. Hearing different voices had me not just thinking, but opening up my mind to something I thought I already knew.

Though I wouldn’t put it on the same level as Beloved, Sula was too quick and too satisfying not to recommend. It had me looking forward to reading the entire rest of her bibliography. Whether it’s your first Morrison or your fifth, it’s worth it.

The Intuitionist

My appetite for mystery is what led me to The Intuitionist. Hungry for another mystery, I gobbled up Flavorwire’s list of 50 Essential Mystery Novels That Everyone Should Read. Colson Whitehead’s neo-noir tale sounded so deliciously different, the book soon skyrocketed to the top of my to-read list despite the fact that no one else I knew had ever heard of it.

I imagined it to be a high-minded unraveling of a complicated world that would still keep me rapt in the story, eager to turn each page.

My expectations were wildly off base.

The Intuitionist is more allegory than mystery, more Ralph Ellison than Agatha Christie.

The story takes place in a sort of steampunk, pre-civil rights New York (although it’s never named). There, elevators are not only regulated by the government, but are well-recognized symbols of social mobility—after all, the elevators make the tall, glittering cities of the future possible. Lila Mae Watson is the city’s first black female inspector. She’s also an Intuitionist, a school of inspection looked down upon by the Empiricist majority for the way it relies on psychic sensations rather than tools for its inspections. When one of the elevators Lila’s given her seal of approval suddenly plummets, she becomes determined to figure out who set her up and why.

If this little synopsis has your head spinning, don’t worry—you’re not alone. There’s a lot going on in the world that author Colson Whitehead has built, but it’s really not difficult to fall into.

Slick city streets, dark underbelly politics, and nefarious thugs all have their roles to play while Whitehead toys with concepts of racial identity. He uses the characters’ discussion of “verticality” to force the reader into thinking about the social strata and how racism has shaped it. He then wraps this blatant allegory of the black experience in a dark, noir style that’s more Raymond Chandler than Toni Morrison.

Unfortunately for me, I would generally rather watch noir than read it. There’s an iciness to the language, something almost mechanical, which leaves me feeling detached. Here, it absolutely works to match our aloof protagonist, but I felt like I was being kept at arm’s length in a way that worked against what Whitehead was trying to achieve.

I wanted to feel like I was with Lila every step of they way, not just watching her from afar as in passages like this:

“Her place was as she left it: raped. She pulled her suitcase from under the bed and packed again, this time for a much longer stay. . . . She lingered in the doorway. She thought she had forgotten something. Hadn’t. She did not possess any lucky rabbit’s feet or childhood dolls to ward off the monsters of the adult world. Just clothes.”

It’s hard for me to explain why I don’t connect with this passage. It should be tense, I should feel Lila’s anxiety or her fear, but I just don’t. The text just couldn’t take me there.

Yet I can’t fully blame Whitehead for this failure. My expectations were sky high for this book, I went in with the wrong mindset, and I was ill prepared for the in-your-face nature of its themes.

“White people’s reality is built on that things appear to be—that’s the business of Empiricism. They judge them on how they appear when held up to the light.”

Had I come into the book more prepared, my experience might have been slightly different. I needed an emotional connection to the story, and an allegory was not the place for me to look. As it stands, I still appreciate everything The Intuitionist is trying to accomplish, but when I couldn’t care about it, I realized I didn’t care for it.

Boss

 

“‘He can’t quit. It’s almost a sickness. If he can, he’s going to hold onto it until he is dead. I’m sure he wants to die in office.’

And why not? He had worked all those years to get it, and it was his, the Machine, the city, and nobody could stare him down.”

 

Mayor Richard J. Daley at an election campaign rally Feb. 3, 1975. Photo by John Tweedle.

I’ve lived in Chicago for four years, and I grew up in the near West suburbs. I was born in 1987 and from 1989 until 2011, Daley was the mayor of Chicago. It was a big deal when he decided not to seek a seventh term, though I knew I was too young and too new to city life to truly comprehend what that meant. He was part of a legacy I understood even less. The Daley Dynasty. Our longest serving mayor, he served for 22 years, just barely surpassing the previous record holder—his father. Daley, Sr. ran the city from 1955 until his death in 1976. He’s the reason for Richard J. Daley Center, Daley Plaza, and that famous Picasso.

But none of that is what spurred me to pick up Mike Royko’s seminal 1971 biography, Boss.

Illinois politics (really, Chicago politics) have a reputation. Four out of our last seven governors went to prison. Chicago has never really shaken its association with crime from Capone’s heyday, and the number of city and federal officials charged with everything from bribery to extortion isn’t doing anything to change anyone’s minds. And to top it all off, violence in the city remains at an all-time high with at least 82 people shot and 16 killed over the Fourth of July weekend. With stats like that, you can’t help but wonder what the hell is going on.

As a resident of this place for the foreseeable future, I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions. Questions like, why is it like this? How did we get here?

I do my best to keep up with the news, but I wanted more. I wanted some history. I wanted to dig a little deeper.

Enter, Boss.

Royko’s tone throughout was absolutely pitch perfect for me. I tend to prefer memoir to biography because I find the language used in the former to be more engaging or even lyrical, depending on the book. But Boss was able to do just that while still getting straight to the facts. Its first pages set the scene.

A dark Bridgeport street. A quiet red-brick bungalow. A black limousine.

We’re introduced to the indomitable Richard J. Daley as we follow him through a typical day. We meet who he meets. We go where he goes. We see the world through his schedule rather than his eyes. This is how Royko sucks you in.

Once inside, it’s a barrage of names, dates, places, favors, and phone calls. Royko’s playful writing seems to find a kind of joy in unveiling Daley’s inner wheelings and dealings. Whether it’s recounting his infamous outbursts during meetings or the biblical page-long recounting of the nepotism running rampant in the city’s government. Who begat who becomes who hired who. In Royko’s words:

“A Chicago Rip Van Winkle could awaken to the political news columns and, reading the names, think that time had stood still.”

While focusing more strongly on Daley’s reign during the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s, Royko also does his best to describe the inner workings of what he refers to as “the Machine.” It was the democratic party’s vice-like grip on the city and even the state, and it was a force to be reckoned with—a force I certainly didn’t understand.

When reading, there were times where information was flying at me so fast it was hard to keep anything straight. Between the ward bosses and city officials, between all these terms and names I was hearing for the first time, I occasionally found myself feeling lost. I think non-Chicagoans might find themselves in the same boat, but I don’t think it’s a serious detriment. Royko’s language really does its best to carry you along. It’s as if you’re at a dinner party and he’s welcomed you to a seat at the table even though you don’t know anyone, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s got you by the arm and is introducing you. Before you know it, you find you know enough, even if you can’t remember anyone’s names.

The climax of the book comes in 1968 with the Democratic National Convention. All hell breaks loose and the scene bears uncomfortable similarities with what’s happening in Ferguson today.

Police and demonstrators clash in Chicago on August 28, 1968, during the Democratic National Convention. Photo: ©Les Sintay/Bettman/CORBIS

Police and demonstrators clashed and Daley’s infamous order to “shoot to kill” eventually led to his being forced to testify in court over the conflict.

At the end of the book, I still wished I knew more. It covers a considerable number of years, but I wanted it to keep going. I wanted a part two.

Chicago citizen or not, Boss makes for an entertaining and enlightening read. It’s certainly not the whole picture of Chicago politics, the Machine, or the ‘60s, but it’s an interesting, in-depth look at a man who—like it or not—helped shape both the city of Chicago and the country we live in today.

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath turned 75 this year. I remembered seeing a blurb on NPR’s website announcing that their book club would be trying to read it before its 75th birthday on April 14, and I contemplated trying to keep pace well enough to meet that goal with them. Unfortunately, I was still wrapping up The Secret History and knew that Grapes of Wrath just wasn’t the sort of book I could get through while juggling another novel. If I was going to read it, I’d have to do it on my own.

I’m not sure, exactly, how it slipped through the cracks of my literary education, but it remained off reading lists in high school and through all of college and more or less off my radar of interest until very recently.

It’s part of the canon. It’s a Pulitzer prize winner. It’s penned by a Nobel laureate. If that can’t help push a book onto your “to read” list, nothing can.

I think what surprised me the most about Wrath was just how much I loved it. And I loved it. The alternating chapters foreshadowing the miseries to come for the Joad family, the way it simultaneously reminded you that you were reading just one story out of many as well the story of many.

The only other book to really speak to me on the same level when it comes to understanding this part of American history is the significantly less famous Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer. In a way, it’s the perfect companion piece to Grapes of Wrath. While Wrath takes you through the Dust Bowl and the California migration, Waiting for Nothing shows you the cities and the flop houses and the lonely men riding the rails with nowhere to go.

But back to Steinbeck.

His language feels both sparse and rich, simplistic and complicated, and maybe it’s those nuances that made it such a slow, but satisfying read. Unlike East of Eden, which seemed to emotionally gut-punch me with every turn, Wrath was a more physically enjoyable read as well. For some reason with East of Eden the themes of love and death just really wrecked me to the point that I think that book took me four months to read. I loved it deeply in the end, but still. It was rough. Grapes of Wrath wasn’t so unsettling, but at the same time I think I loved it more.

What resonated the most strongly with me were Steinbeck’s chapters discussing the way a bank is more than a man. I think in this post-recession, post-bank-bailout world it’d be hard for those chapters not to resonate.

“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

You can see it in that one quote. The staying power of Grapes of Wrath is strong. It’s getting to the heart of something and that something really, truly does feel deeply American to me. It’s hard for me to put exactly what that is into words, though.

This is what I can say:

It’s been 80-some years since the Dust Bowl and the Depression and 75 years since the first publication of Grapes of Wrath and the book exists as an echo reminding us not just of where we’ve been, but where we are.

Revolutionary Road

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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]