Frank and April Wheeler, the protagonists of Richard Yates' 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, are, in the most basic sense, ordinary people. He works in the city in what he calls "a hopelessly dull job;" she's a stay-at-home mother of two. They live on the street that gives the novel its title, in a cookie-cutter suburb in Connecticut.
In the 300-plus pages of the novel, nothing all that extraordinary happens to them, at least not until the end: Frank and April deal with dissatisfaction and fear, with pregnancy and ambition, and with the dream of escape. Yet in spite of this lack of surface pizazz, Revolutionary Road seems, each time I read it, ever more moving, and ever more an essential testament about mid-20th century America.
Anyone living in the suburbs, as I do, is going to recognize Frank and April's world, but Yates sets his novel very precisely in 1955, that fulcrum year, when America was tipped halfway toward the previous quarter-century of restraint and doing without, and half toward the future, when a greater sexual freedom would call all that restraint into question. Like the greatest American literature, Revolutionary Road is about inheritance: what it is we carry with us from our ancestors, what it is we can never quite shake loose from even when we believe we're breaking free. Frank wants to be a suburban rebel — his own man — but he can't stop feeling his world as a diminished place next to his father's. "He continued to believe that something unique and splendid lived in his father's hands," is the way Yates puts it, and though we eventually learn how small and threatened the old man's world was, that phrase speaks to the continuing burden of the past.
There's another element of the past that Yates evokes beautifully: the way the 1920s' Lost Generation instilled in its sons and daughters growing up in the '50s the dream of escape to Europe. Filtering through Frank and April's days, you can breathe the scent of the old American romanticism and the way it hovered over ordinary couples like these.
But maybe, the novel suggests, it also poisoned them. Frank and April feel a growing emotional distance from their safe and cozy suburban world; Yates charts this not only by rendering in brilliant detail what was so truly stifling about the expectations of the '50s, but by showing us how "the dream of voyages" became a too-easy and ill-thought-out escape hatch for those who considered themselves superior to that world.
When April announces, late in the novel, "I don't know who I am," that overfamiliar line — a line that by all rights should land like a cliché — instead becomes a heartbreaking moment. We've come to see by then just how unformed this young couple is, yet how deeply they are caught inside the world they're trying to flee.
Richard Yates was a famously pessimistic writer, and there's no question that Revolutionary Road, while a hugely pleasurable read, is not an easy one emotionally. Every time I read it, I start to see the world the way Yates did: the clothes hanging on my clothesline begin to look a little shabby, my suburban house in some desperate need of repair. But that's a small price to pay for Yates' clarity. The deeper I get into the life of marriage and parenthood — Yates' special territory — the more essential I find that clarity to be.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.