Frank and April Wheeler’s life in the suburbs of Connecticut might look very typical to the untrained eye: two children and a charming white house with a picture window that April keeps clean and tidy during the day before Frank returns from his boring office job in the City (even he doesn’t seem to be all too sure of what exactly it is he is doing). But surely they are not normal. Surely they are the golden couple, the exception to the suburban rule. Right?
When they met as two free-spirited bohemians in the Village they promised each other never to conform to the standard of American middle-class life – or lack thereof. And even when an unplanned pregnancy forced the bright and beautiful young couple to settle down, they keep up their hopes of being different from their new neighbours, who they tend to look down on during their (pseudo-) intellectual cocktail dates with their only suburban friends, the Campbells.
But slowly doubts are arising and dissatisfaction is moving into the Wheeler home. Shouldn’t greatness and adventure have found them by now? April never saw herself as a housewife, not even as a mother, and as time passes she can no longer pretend that the current state of affairs are just a temporary arrangement. Frank might be more naturally drawn to the suburban life than his wife, but the dullness of his job and lack of excitement in his life – sexual and otherwise – get to his sense of self and erode his confidence. After yet another fight, April comes up with a plan to save their marriage and their personalities from the slow and painful death by monotony and conformity: the family should sell everything and move to Paris, to the place they dream about when they get overwhelmed by their disdain for the American way of life. The weeks of planning their new life are the most exciting ones in the Wheeler’s marriage; filled with hopes and dreams and passions like a honeymoon. But when offered a promotion at work after having started an affair with his secretary and thereby revived his sex-life, Frank starts to question whether he really wants to change everything, or anything at all. He is successful at work, has a beautiful wife in a nice house with charming children and a young lover. Is that not better than moving to a city where he does not speak the language and would be lingering at home while his wife provided for the family? When an unexpected turn of events dissolves their plans there is nothing to stop their marriage from disintegrating either before the novel concludes in a tragic ending.
Yates manages to write his critique of the American suburbs in the 1950s and the woman’s role within them with both ruthless clarity and compassion. Exploring the situation from both April’s and Frank’s point of view creates a nuanced picture of the characters, their flaws and the obstacles in their way to becoming better persons, partners and parents. Yates shows both the social dynamics at force and the mistakes the Wheelers make, which lead them to betray not only each other but themselves. His writing his precise and effortless and the narration is brilliantly executed. The American suburbs are presented in an utterly negative light, sucking all the life out of people while society makes it so easy to conform, to follow the steps neatly laid out to you by you parents and their parents before them. In fact, April hits the nail on the head when she defends her Paris-plan as realistic saying that simply following a script you don’t enjoy in the least is what should really be called unrealistic. Yates shows us her despair and her self-delusion, without criticising or moralising one or the other. Boredom, excitement, anxiety and courage, passion and poisonous love – Revolutionary Road unites it all in a book that 60 years after its publication is still pleasurable to read even if it is not easy to digest emotionally.