Set in 1955 in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City, Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, is the original novel about the suburban wasteland and the often disastrous effects of moving out, settling down, and giving up.
Frank and April Wheeler were full of promise. He had intelligence, wit, and a decent job in the city, and she graduated from theater school and showed noticeable, if not remarkable talent. They got married, moved to the suburbs, had children, and now they are miserable.
An educated, intelligent, somewhat cosmopolitan couple, Frank and April recognized the absurdity of “deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs” and think they are doing pretty well at resisting them. They are clearly in denial, since Frank works in a mindless job (at the same company his father worked for), and April has become the typical lonely housewife, for whom life is one act after another…but they haven’t come to terms with that fact.
Frank and April get together with their friends the Campbells and fall into routine discussions about the “desolate emptiness” of the suburbs and “the whole idea of suburbia being to keep reality at bay.”
It’s as if everybody’d made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception.
They want to continue to be a part of the “real” world, to think about important things and make important decisions. Most of all, they want to resist what April calls the “enormous, obscene delusion—this idea that people have to resign from real life and “settle down” when they have families. It’s the great sentimental lie of the suburbs.”
During one evening with the Campbells, the conversation falls silent.
They shifted in their seats, they filled awkward pauses with elaborate courtesies about the refreshing of drinks, they avoided one another’s eyes and did their best to avoid the alarming, indisputable knowledge that they had nothing to talk about.
Disillusioned with their friends, their life in the suburbs, and Frank’s impending climb up the corporate ladder, the Wheelers cook up a plan to move to France, where they can be truly forward-thinking. It’s an idea their friends consider “immature,” actions that would only be taken by people who are “running away from something,” but an escape plan is exactly what they need, and their other attempts (primarily through extramarital affairs) have failed to satisfy them. Everyone they tell thinks it’s a crazy idea, but Frank and April, in their self-deluded glory, think they have it all figured out and that everyone else is just incapable of comprehending what they’re really doing. They have moments of clarity, when they realize on some level that things aren’t right and that they aren’t entirely healthy, but the moments don’t last, and they are never quite able to admit the truth to themselves.
Their plans are disrupted by April’s discovery that she is pregnant, and she and Frank become locked in a battle over whether to attempt abortion or to cancel the move and be stuck in their depressed, depressing suburban life. Yates captures their intimate knowledge and artful manipulation of each other with great mastery, and he makes their arguments beyond believable.
In fact, Revolutionary Road as a whole is a triumph of realistic writing. Yates’s dialogue rings true and becomes increasingly sharp as Frank and April become more and more deluded. When they argue, you feel the sting of every overt insult and subtle jab, and when it all starts to come down around them, you know that this is how it must really be when a marriage implodes. This is not a quiet collapse.
I loved Yates’s style from the opening chapter and was consistently impressed by his realism and his ability to portray his characters’ inner lives and their well-acted relationships equally well. This is clearly the work that sparked the idea that eventually inspired movies like American Beauty, and I’m sure Yates has been inspiration for many contemporary writers. Tom Perrotta’s writing seems to bear some marks of this influence, particularly in Little Children, but that’s just my guess.
Revolutionary Road is a stunning American classic. 5 out 5.
I’d be remiss not to mention that this book has been adapted for a film that will be released in the U.S. on December 26th. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio play April and Frank Wheeler, and though I usually detest books based on movies, I’m looking forward to this one because I could heard DiCaprio’s voice delivering Frank’s lines as I read, and (at least in my head) it seemed to work pretty well.