Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 12, 2009

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

revolutionary-roadRevolutionary Road is a recent film release starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio so there are probably few reading this blog who don’t already know what happens in the story.  I came to it, however, with no advance knowledge about the plot, only an enthusiastic endorsement of the book from the panel at the First Tuesday Book Club, and I think I enjoyed it all the more because of it. 


It is much more than a cautionary tale about backyard abortion in the days before reliable birth control.  Written in 1961, it’s the story of April and Frank Wheeler and the emptiness of postwar American life.  The era depicted in Rebel without a Cause; The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road and other angst-ridden books and films of their ilk.   April and Frank however,  are not rebellious teenagers, they’re adults, with two small children…

The title is ironic.  It refers to the street where this couple live in the suburbs, Revolutionary Hill.  Anything less revolutionary than their lives would be hard to imagine.  Where real battles raged, Alice and Frank bicker over trivia, wretchedly dissecting their dreary lives and sneering at everyone else.  In an effort to break this cycle, April suggests that they start afresh in Paris.  This would take Frank away from the dull job he hates and the mind-numbing routine of commuting; she would work and set him free.  (The children play almost no role in their decision-making; they are merely minor problems requiring management, usually just baby-sitting, but there is the occasional eloquent image of a bewildered little girl sucking her thumb and quietly sobbing.)

Yates captures the fierce longing of pre-feminist women to be something other than homemakers in the suburbs, and it’s a neat reversal of the ‘let-me-take-you-away-from-all-this’ line.  It’s doomed to failure because they’ve already had one unplanned pregnancy and soon have another: what’s shocking is the desperation of Alice and the decision she makes.  For Frank, the pregnancy offers a reprieve from a prospect he now fears.  He’s (fleetingly) more optimistic about his job after a gimcrack brochure he designs turns out to be a success, and he doesn’t want to go to Paris.  Again the irony: Frank went there during the war to fight; now they see it as an oasis of civilisation and integrity, but Frank fears the exposure of his intellectual and social pretensions.  He can’t really speak French, and he doesn’t know the city as Alice thinks he does, except to know that he and Alice wouldn’t fit in to the intellectual elite there either.  So while he sees the pregnancy as a way out of his dilemma, and batters her emotionally to get his own way; for Alice the pregnancy is entrapment, offering only years and years stuck at home and no hope of escape any more.

It’s a brutal dissection of a marriage, but it’s also a very powerful critique of postwar American conservatism and conformity.  I’m looking forward to seeing the film!

Update 5.9.09

The film is a disappointment.  Enough said….


  1. You mean Frank, not Richard (even though Frank is somewhat based on Yates himself). In an interesting interview in Orpah’s magazine, Yates’s daughter Monica makes the point that in real life Yates and her mother had in fact experienced their own life in Paris before their marriage started to fall apart and Yates finished the novel. You might enjoy my account of friendship with Yates in my memoir SAFE SUICIDE. I teach his work, which is enriched by relation to his biography. See Blake Bailey’s A TRAGIC HONESTY.


  2. I do indeed, thank you Henry, and I’ve fixed it. Frank, of course, is exactly what he’s not….


  3. OK. I’m going to read the book now! I enjoyed the film, but only because I knew *nothing* about the plotline, although I had a vague idea the story was about an unhappy marriage. So, if you thought the film was pretty ordinary, then the book must be brilliant.


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