Saturday, March 7, 2009

Title Twenty: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I haven't seen the film yet, and I wanted to read the book before I did. Call me a snob, but I believe that no movie is ever better than the book (with the notable exception of Atonement), so I wanted to read the novel in order to see what the fuss was about.

It's difficult for me to be unable to pin down whether I like a book or not. Normally, once I turn the last page, I have a very definite opinion. At the end of Revolutionary Road, however, I found myself ambivalent. The only way I can explain that is that, while I think the story was well-told, I absolutely loathed the characters. I've rarely met a more unsympathetic set of protagonists than April and Frank Wheeler. Out of the two, I gave April a bit more of the benefit of the doubt, but Frank Wheeler is a pompous, vain, self-centered ass and if I'd ever found myself with the misfortune of being married to his preening, holier-than-thou self it would be a miracle if I didn't go at him with a frying pan one evening.

The Wheelers live the quintessential 1950s American Dream - they have a charming house in a Connecticut suburb, two children (a boy and a girl, of course), Frank commutes to an office job in Manhattan each day, and they drink their way through everything. Booze is as much a main character as the Wheelers themselves and features more prominently than the children. Of course, the Wheelers hate their boring suburban lifestyle, a point with which I agree. I would rather jam a bamboo skewer into my eye than live in the Wheelers' neighborhood, with its subdivisions and gardens and community theater attempts. I'm not a snob; I just prefer the city and enjoy the fact that I can walk around the corner to get my milk and bread instead of driving ten miles on a highway. If you like the suburbs, or rural areas, rock on. Everyone should do what makes them happy. The Wheelers, however, aren't doing what makes them happy, and so the reader has to suffer through their ennui and complaints, page by page. April and Frank met and married in New York City, but had to move when their family became too large for dingy flats in the city. Frank has put in years in the Sales Promotion department at Knox Business Machines, the very same company that employed his father, because he didn't know what else to do with his life when his wife found herself pregnant not long after their marriage. He languishes in this private hell but at no time does he do anything about it. He prefers to complain and dissemble, while doing essentially nothing at work, and comes home to a wife who is no happier than he is at finding herself locked into suburbia. April alternates between the sterotypical cold shrew and the fawning, doting wife, both of which made me slightly nauseated and contributed to my dislike for the pair. They virtually ignore their children and see fit to associate with only one couple from the neighborhood, whom they deign to be not so far beneath them as other people.

One day April comes up with the idea for the family to move to Europe, where she can support the family as a secretary for one of the American embassies and Frank can take the time to "find himself." They're so above it all that they don't consider the ramifications for their children, their friends, Frank's job, or anything else. The immaturity and selfishness are slightly shocking, and if the author means for the reader to feel sympathy for the Wheelers' plight of having to settle for "ordinary," he went off the rails with this one. Before the grand plan can come to fruition, April falls pregnant once again and the rest of the novel lurches toward a sad ending that gives the situation no real perspective. I can't even call it tragic, because I dislike the Wheelers too much to feel any real upset.

Maybe I'm just tired of this backlash against the nostalgia so long held for the "Greatest Generation." No, things weren't perfect back then. The housewives drank and popped pills and made disgusting Jello molds, and the men wore suits and commuted to stale office jobs in the city and paid more attention to the paper, the ballgame, and their evening cocktails than to their families. The kids rode bikes and had paper routes and played with Barbies and then grew up to burn their bras or die in the jungles of Vietnam. We've known for at least a decade and a half that the "American Dream" was just that; it was a myth, a mirage, an illusion. Maybe Revolutionary Road would have had a fresher feel if I'd read it ten or fifteen years ago, but now it's just a stale retread of books that I've read before. I haven't decided yet whether or not to see the film, but if DiCaprio's Frank is anything like the character in the novel, I'll probably end up turning it off.

(If you still think you might like to give this one a try, I recommend taking a drink every time Frank Wheeler checks out his reflection in a mirror, window, door, or spoon. You'll be hammered halfway through. Drinking games are fun!)


Mr. Controversy said...

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! I am in TOTAL agreeance with your review, because this is how I felt after seeing the movie. (The girlfriend read the book, wanted to see the movie, and said it was quite faithful, but dropped a couple subplots.)

I still don't know whether I like or hate the movie, and I DESPISE the Wheelers. The ending, while disturbing, wasn't exactly all that tragic. Nevertheless, I'm going to try and read the book at some point, so thanks for the review.

Joy Manning said...

Well it sounds like the books is exactly like the movie so maybe you should skip it. I didn't like the Wheelers though I did really believe the performances.