Unhappy suburban families in the 1950s has become something of a cliche, but it’s easy to imagine that Richard Yates before the cliches began. He certainly is able to avoid them.
Frank and April Wheeler are in their late twenties, have two children, and live in Connecticut. Frank works in New York City and April stays home to take care of the house and kids. They’ve settled down to the domestic life expected of them, even if it’s not the life they thought they would live.
This book is entirely unexpected. While Frank and April engage in some of the cliches you might expect – affairs, vicious fights, unplanned pregnancies – they are far from cliches themselves. The story slowly unfolds their personalities, their histories, and Yates draws their lives so that what begins to happen to them and between them seems inevitable.
Frank and April met when they were young, rebelling against the societal expectations surrounding them and enjoying that – mentally at least – they hadn’t bought into it all. An unexpected pregnancy sets them on a more domestic course and within a few years they find themselves living in the suburbs, wondering if change is possible anymore. It’s a question most of us have asked at one time or another in our lives. When do the daily boring things you do and dislike – your job, your household chores – become all there is to you? When your inner life stops effecting your outer life, does it still count? Does it still matter? And is it too late?
The Wheelers hatch a plan to change their lives and here the tension of the novel only grows. Because it seems clear that this will never succeed. Not because the plan is unreasonable but because Yates steadily creates two characters who are undeniably unstable. You can’t help reading in a state of unease, waiting for the inevitable downfall and implosion. Yet even while it feels expected, that implosion has some pretty shocking consequences. Yates manages to be both true to the characters he’s created and still show us brand new things about them.
The book is bleak and sad and beautifully written. It won’t make you want to buy a house in the ‘burbs but it might make you more thankful for your own simple life.