Friday, 3 April 2009

Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates

Read: February 2009

Revolutionary Road in one tweet sized chunk:

The archetypal suburban drama, Revolutionary Road is a fine piece of controlled narrative fiction by an author in full control of his craft.

It is the 1950’s and with the blossoming cold war, McCarthy witch hunts, and economic boom, America is gripped by the need to conform. The revolutionary road which began in 1776 has led here, a new suburban cul de sac where neighbours call each other ‘darling’ and share cocktails on the lawn.

Frank and April Wheeler are a young, talented, outwardly successful couple with two children, a nice suburban house in Revolutionary Road, and a sociable group of friends. But, like many outwardly successful suburbanite couples in literature, there is a maggot eating away at the core of their lives. They have succumbed to the age old suburban delusion that all their dreams will come true. So while they wait for this bright future to dawn they make grandiose plans to move to Europe, drink far too much , and give way to their own uncontrollable passions. They are each emotionally fragile; as a couple they are teetering on the brink. And when April falls pregnant for a third time and they are forced to put their plans to emigrate to Europe on hold, the fragile facade they have built for themselves begins to crumble away.

The novel opens with a glorious set-piece at a community theatre where the newly formed Laurel Players are about to make their first performance. April is the only member with a theatre background and as such she has been cast in the lead role. But they are underprepared, nervous, and hopelessly disorganised. When one of the cast pulls out at the last minute they are thrown, and more than anyone else April is left alone on the stage to face the humiliation of failure. It is a fearsomely well written beginning, fantastically described, and encapsulating their fragile social milieu almost perfectly.

As the plot progresses inevitably onwards we meet a host of delightfully rounded characters. From the brash businessman Bart Pollock, to Shep and Milly and their impossibly ordinary marriage, and the sad secret kept hidden by the Givings, Revolutionary Road feels like a template upon which all suburban dramas have been written. If you enjoy the discordant relationship at the heart of Revolutionary Road, you should try Music For Torching by A.M. Homes, which updates that nihilistic attitude for the end of the 1990s. Between them they act almost as a conversation down the years: delineating how the world changes, and yet nothing changes.

This is a fine piece of controlled narrative fiction, superbly written by an author in full control of his craft. The plot throws up convincing feints and swerves which make you believe you know where it is going, only to find yourself utterly wrong. Nothing is ever quite what you expect. And when the inevitable cataclysm comes, it is not the all-encompassing destruction you are expecting. It is a modest, powerful, understated ending, reeking with the impossibility of controlling a life which can never be controlled.

7.5 out of 10

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