Hello, everyone! For my 100th blog post, I’m reviewing Revolutionary Road, a phenomenal book and a keystone in the suburban disillusionment genre, which includes icons like American Beauty and Mad Men. Chances are, if you’ve viewed either of these works, the fundamental themes and character beats in Richard Yate’s Revolutionary Road won’t be, well, revolutionary, but their timeliness and sincerity is what makes the novel a must-read. Looking back on the Fifties from our lofty pedestals, it’s clear to see the stifling role that traditional society played in the lives of young Americans, but writing this novel in the wave of traditionalism, Yates’ novel was an urgent voice against the dangers of complacency.
Synopsis: Golden couple Frank and April Wheeler have the ideal life: a fine house in the respectable Revolutionary Road neighborhood, two polite children, a stable income, and most of all, the wit, charm, and education that establishes them to their neighbors as a couple destined for greatness. Greatness, however, has yet to find them. Stuck in his monotonous job at Knox Computers, Frank dreams of a more purposeful future, and April, doomed to the maternal burden of housework and child rearing, longs for a more glamorous lifestyle. A move to Paris promises freedom and the upheaval of the life the Wheelers have grown to abhor, but Frank is hesitant to leave this security and dive into the unknown. As their dreams and fears collide, the Wheeler’s relationship is bent to the breaking point, their idyll fated to reveal its dim reality.
Revolutionary Road is a novel about dreams, and how, when driven to desperation, they can become more real than life itself. Frank’s image of April is mostly a dream; his conversations with her take place more often in the safety of his head than in actuality. Yates’ characterization of Frank is of a man so deeply wrapped in his own thoughts and expectations that life can’t help but pass him by. As our main perspective into the Wheeler family, Frank’s view of April, flawed as it is, is the one the readers grow to know and expect. We see her as Frank wants us to, as a woman who is still the beautiful, interesting, mysterious girl he fell in love with, whose love for him is eternal, and whose allegiance can always be won through Frank’s sincere love for her. Their fights, told primarily from his perspective, portray April as sometimes cold, sometimes stubborn, but never too far gone as to be unable to be lured back again by Frank’s charms. It’s not until the penultimate chapter of the novel that we discover how wrong Frank has been about April, and about himself.
Yates delves into the minds of these characters in a masterful way. Frank and April are deeply flawed characters, both at once so idealistic and so unyielding that from the outset it’s clear that their happiness will be difficult to obtain. At the same time, Yates paints them sympathetically. Even during Frank’s most insufferable and insensitive moments, and April’s most obstinate ones, Yates gives them the freedom to be nuanced, unrestrained by archetypes. When I was reading their arguments, it felt like I was really there and watching them unfold in a completely organic way, with no stagey, melodramatic one-liners that lots of writers include to emphasize the draaamaaa. The movie, unfortunately, fell into this trap, but its source material never does.
The one issue I had with Yates’ use of perspective is that Frank’s point of view gets the lion’s share of time in the novel. And when that’s shared with the perspectives of secondary characters like Shep Campbell and Mrs. Givings, Yates leaves April with one or two measly chapters. These chapters happen to be the most climactic ones in the novel, and the most revelatory about her motivation, but the novel could have benefitted from her perspective during the rest of the book. As nuanced as Yates makes April, the novel is still heavily weighted towards Frank’s traditional male perspective. His wants and desires are presented with more sympathy than April’s and given the most room to grow. With only a chapter-long denouement for the reader to ponder the consequences and legitimacy of those desires, Yates seems to be commenting on Frank’s flawed outlook on life, but he never really gives the reader enough time to judge it for themselves.
Stylistically, the novel is beautiful to read. Yates’ prose is crisp and clean, never particularly innovative or challenging, but with an unassuming elegance that makes one pause over a phrase and really admire it. The opening scene, in which he describes an excruciatingly awkward play, was written in such a way that I was drawn immediately into the novel. Yates delights in describing the awkward moments of human life, and juxtaposed with the rigid politeness in 1950s society, he creates some cringe-worthy situations.
Another strength of Revolutionary Road is its development of the secondary cast. Characters like Shep and Milly Campbell, Frank’s mistress Maureen Grube, and fussy, grieving realtor Mrs. Givings aren’t merely plot propellers, but fully fleshed out characters in their own right. Though their story arcs compare and contrast nicely against the actions of the Wheelers, they give color to Yates’ depiction of 1950s society, and function well as standalone vignettes. The fact that a novella about the life of Mrs. Givings and her mentally ill son John would have been just as interesting as the Wheeler’s story in Revolutionary Road shows how skillfully Yates can construct not just a great story, but a living, breathing novel with characters one could easily pluck off the page and paste into real life.
Final Consensus: Revolutionary Road is a formidable work of 1950s disillusionment, but it’s more than that. It’s a commentary on how dreams can grow to overshadow real life, and how expectations can become toxic. For a novel that was written more than 50 years ago, Frank and April’s struggles are still incredibly relevant. Yates manages to address topics like masculinity, abortion, conformity, and depression without the novel ever feeling overloaded. Mad Men and American Beauty have trod the theme of suburban disillusionment into the dust, but Revolutionary Road demonstrates that nothing can beat the original.
A note on the movie: Revolutionary Road and American Beauty have similar themes, but they are not, in any way, the same story. Sam Mendes didn’t seem to realize that when he directed Revolutionary Road. The movie is beautiful to look at, and well cast, but just like American Beauty, it’s empty. All of Frank and April’s motivation is cut from the film, as well as any characterization of the essential secondary cast. What we get instead is a visual montage of suburban disillusionment, and none of its substance. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are fantastic actors, but neither can bring Frank and April to life. If anything, they play them less as humans and more as symbolic, abridged versions of the characters. Not to say that there wasn’t some GIF worthy scenes:
And a stellar Thomas Newman soundtrack:
Which, coincidentally, sounds very similar to this American Beauty soundtrack. Sam Mendes really, really couldn’t help himself. So, in conclusion: