A while back I found a forgotten book token in a drawer in the study, and so the next time I headed into town, I spent a good while browsing around the bookshop trying to decide what to purchase. In the end I went for this novel, not that I knew much about it or its author, Richard Yates, but  I remembered seeing it listed in the TIME top 100 list and I am a sucker for anything set in 1950s America…

Although it’s not a short novel (my edition runs to 337 pages) I seem to have read it in just four or five sittings, which I think says something about how good and how compelling the novel is. I tend to find this with the fiction I read: that if a book is really good I will tend to devour it in a few short days, even if – as was the case here – I only get time to read by staying up late. (I remember that I chomped through Donna Tartt’s large debut novel, The Secret History, in just over two days as I simply could not put it down!)

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

So, what is the book about? One answer would be that it is about the lives of Frank and April Wheeler, a bright young couple who always talked of  doing great, exciting things with their lives, yet who find themselves in 1955 still living in the Connecticut suburbs they were always so keen to avoid. And although they have a nice home, a couple of young children and a pretty decent standard of living, there hangs all about them a heavy sense of disappointment and emptiness.

I notice on Wikipedia that Richard Yates described in one interview the subtext behind the novel:

I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.

From this you may not be surprised to hear that this is not a particularly happy tale. There is no feel-good ending with a perfect 1950s family happily relaxing on their perfectly manicured lawn as the sun sets over their pastel coloured suburban home. Rather, there is a large reflective mirror held up in front of the (self-)deception and hypocrisy of western suburban life with its competitiveness, posturing and loss of individual thought.

In their own way, the Wheelers are looking for some truth, for something truly authentic, yet they are so acclimatised to the prevailing attitudes and outlooks that although they know they want out of the rut they are in, neither of them know how to even begin to change. In fact, they cannot even communicate effectively with one another.

Now, I know the following phrase gets overused, but I think it is fair to use it here: here is modern tragedy. A book that hits hard and leaves a strong impression.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral or J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts.