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Book Review: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

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Revolutionary Road, the novel, has gotten a big publicity boost due to its recently released film adaptation, but the thing that drew me to the book was its connection to one of the best TV shows out there today, Mad Men. Road has a lot of thematic similarity to Mad Men, playing on the desperate struggles to find meaning in a world that’s designed to reduce everyone to the same thing – an anonymous job, a manicured lawn and a “happy” marriage. The book doesn’t feel as fresh as Mad Men, logically because it is nearly 50 years old.

This is one of those artistic works that’s hurt by the very extent of its influence. When the book was released, these kind of exposes of the hollowness of suburban life weren’t as commonplace as they are today in a post-Blue Velvet, post-American Beauty world. The hollow conformity of suburbia is a pet theme for all kinds of filmmakers and writers, and as a result, this book feels like listening to one of those albums you’ve always heard is an all-time game-changing classic, and hearing it as an all right, but kind of generic work. To read this book now is to be aware of years of influence and echoes in pop culture, such that the original work has become almost superfluous.

Thematically, I don’t think Road has that much new to offer, but, on an execution level, it’s really well done. Richard Yates writes in the third person, but switches between different character points of view. We spend most of the book with Frank, a frustrated husband who’s moved out to Connecticut with his wife April and two kids. He took on a boring job as a kind of gag, but has gotten gradually more entrenched there. He felt that he and April were performing a kind of normality, but gradually they have become the kind of people they mocked around them. The essential conflict for Frank is that he doesn’t know what he wants to do, he just knows he doesn’t want this.

The novel’s greatest strength is the way it immerses you in the inner workings of its characters. In the brief time we spend with Shep or Mrs. Givings, we get a full picture of their lives and why they behave the way they do. Even if the narrative doesn’t have much new to offer, it’s still fascinating to look at the world through these characters’ eyes.

Reading Revolutionary Road today, I’d give the book the same criticism that many critics have for the film – that it just doesn’t feel essential. What is this book saying that hasn’t been said before? That’s not Yates’s fault; when the book came out, he was saying things that hadn’t been said before. But it’s a testament to his influence that the themes of the book have become so ubiquitous. It’s still a well executed story, but not an essential read.

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