“He felt as if he were sinking helplessly into the cushions and the papers and the bodies of his children like a man in quicksand. When the funnies were finished at last he struggled to his feet, quietly gasping, and stood for several minutes in the middle of the carpet, making tight fists in his pockets to restrain himself from doing what suddenly seemed the only thing in the world he really and truly wanted to do: picking up a chair and throwing it through the picture window.
What in the hell kind of life was this? What in God’s name was the point or the meaning or the purpose of a life like this?”
Are you living the life you wanted to live? Are your job, your marriage, your home, and your love life as fulfilling as you had hoped they would be? Is anyone that you know living the life of their dreams in every aspect? Or have we all found ourselves settling, settling for the life that we are living, coping as best we can with the cards we’re dealt?
In Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates explores the disappointments and pain involved in finding yourself on a different path than the one you had set for yourself. That first path, and the promise that it holds, can be a deadly path if we’re not allowed to follow it. When we become embittered and angry with our lot in life, the desperation can lead to depression, alcoholism, and a slow, painful death. The kind of death that takes your whole life to occur.
Frank and April Wheeler are a handsome young couple, who meet and fall in love in New York, and consider themselves to be somewhat sophisticated and worldly wise. Frank has no specific ambitions, career wise. He seems to think of himself as somehow above any job that he is qualified for, and so when he graduates from college, he seeks out the most boring job he can find, one that will not take any part of his mind or soul, one that requires nothing more than that his body occupy a desk chair for 8 hours a day, so that he can keep his mind free for higher, more lofty pursuits. What he fails to realize is that this kind of job can cause your brain to atrophy, and that it can suck your soul dry faster than you ever thought possible.
April had dreams of becoming a theater actress, a dream that she pursues without much enthusiasm or fervor. They meet, fall in love, and have vague dreams of starting a family someday down the road, after they’ve fulfilled some of their dreams of sophisticated living and travel, living and really experiencing life in Paris, in a way that simply cannot be accomplished in the United States. Of course, life seldom works out the way we expect it to, and April’s first pregnancy derails their dreams, and starts them down a path of fulfilling expectations rather than dreams. The next thing they know, they find themselves the owners of a starter home in the suburbs of Connecticut. Frank commutes into the city to his mind-numbing job, shares his cubicle with his alcoholic office mate, and succeeds in shifting paper around the office in an endless circle, where no one seems to get any actual work done, but they all mange to pick up their paychecks all the same. April is at home with her two young children. They look down their noses at their neighbors, at their house, at their surroundings, and ultimately at themselves. They feel they are better than this suburban lifestyle that they are living, but they have no idea how to free themselves from it. They meet a few like-minded malcontents, and decide to start a local theater troupe, thus bringing the enlightenment of wonderful, “thinking mans” plays to the suburbs. The book begins with opening night of their maiden production, and right away we are confronted with the expectations and hopes that are brought to the table, and then crushed, partially by the troupe’s unwillingness to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the production. How the characters deal with the evening and its failures is very telling.
The majority of the story is Frank’s discovery that what he really wanted all along was those exact things that he already had. His final understanding that he is not any better than anyone else in his little suburb, not any better than the life he has chosen for himself…his realization that he indeed has chosen this life, that he in fact chooses it every day of his life, and this discovery proves to be his undoing.
April’s story is given much less space, but is more shattering. She really does want to leave the suburbs, and instead of being secretly relieved when their plans go awry, she is devastated, and is forced to truly examine how she came to be this shell of a person, a person she doesn’t recognize or respect. She is brutally honest with herself and her motives.
I found myself engrossed in this novel, and found my mind returning to it several days later. I will definately re-read it, and I’m looking forward to the insights and depth that come with repeated readings. It’s that good.
This evening, we went to see the film version. I once heard a director say that when converting a novel to a film, you have to cut about 3/4 of the detail out, yet keep the feeling of the story. The director did exactly that, I thought. You felt Frank’s frustrations, and April’s desperation. You felt their triumphs and their failures. I thought Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio did amazing jobs as Frank and April, and the supporting actors were all wonderful as well. Highly recommended.