I finished this book earlier this week. It was very good. Bear in mind, though, that this is not a ‘feel good’ book in any way shape or form. I should also add at the outset that I haven’t seen the film.
It’s set in 1950s suburban Connecticut – principally focused on a young-ish married, middle class couple – Frank and April Wheeler.
The opening chapter is quite brilliant. Very few books have me laughing out loud, especially on a tube which is usually over-crowded and quiet, especially in the morning rush-hour. But laugh I did as I read the opening chapter which commenced with the local amateur dramatic company’s first – and dire – performance. In many ways, this opening chapter was the best part of the book for me; certainly the most entertaining.
The novel reminded me of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, especially its portrayal of Frank and his job and the wage-slave element. He isn’t quite as tragic as Willy Loman, granted, but he still reminded me of him. Outwardly he is a Madison Avenue exec, but in reality (or perhaps more accurately, at the back of his own mind he knows) he is a nobody.
It also reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, in this case the character of April Wheeler who proves to be very unhinged as the novel progresses. You’re reminded of Blanche DuBois who was a tragic and very disturbed figure, if memory serves.
Any one who has seen Mad Men on TV will also spot strong resemblances between Birdie and April, Don and Frank.
The crux of the novel is this young couple who decide to ‘break out’ of their dull, mundane, suburban lives to move to Europe. April wants it more than anything else. Frank, her husband, begins to acquiesce and to also get excited. For the first time in years – they get on like a house on fire; they’re aligned; excited; they have dreams and aspirations. But things shift quite drastically. April, already the mother of two children, unexpectedly becomes pregnant again; she wants an abortion; he doesn’t. Frank gets a promotion at work. Their dream slips away.
I read the novel as an indictment of marriage, of conformity and of slavish adherence to the status quo. Not just April and Frank, but the other couples too. People ‘going through the motions’ of happily married lives. But they’re not ‘happily married’. Not any more. They become marriages of convenience. Mainly because children are involved.
This quote from the Wiki website is quite good, summing up the central theme:
In the October 1999 issue of the Boston Review, Yates was quoted on his central theme: “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.” The Wheelers’ frustrations and yearnings for something better represent the tattered remnants of the American Dream. (Source: Wikipedia).
This overview is a little short but I don’t like to say too much; read it for yourself. But if you’re in an unhappy marriage, and perhaps if you have children, and you feel ‘trapped’; I’d probably suggest not reading this. Would be too close to home. As I mentioned earlier, this is not a feel good book at all; quite the opposite in fact.
Well written. Engaging. Powerful stuff. A classic (written in 1961) that I would certainly recommend.