The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The sins of the mother…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

the easter paradeSarah and Emily Grimes have a disrupted childhood, moving from place to place as their feckless, alcoholic mother struggles to settle anywhere. Their father, who loves them, is mainly absent from their lives and they give him a kind of mythic quality, believing him to be a more important man than the reality suggests. The girls come to adulthood around the time of WW2, and their lives diverge. Sarah follows the conventional route of marriage and motherhood, while Emily has a succession of sexual relationships of varying depth and intensity, but never lasting long. In a sense, there’s a sibling rivalry going on, with each of the women somewhat envying the lifestyle of the other. But as the first line, quoted above, makes clear, both are destined to miserable existences.

I loved Revolutionary Road, declaring it almost the equal of Gatsby for what it had to say about the American Dream. That book was certainly not a happy one, but Yates’ insight into his characters and their society, combined with his starkly beautiful prose, made it a profoundly emotional and intelligent read. I came to this one, then, with high hopes and expectations.

To be honest, I’m not sure what Yates is trying to say in this one at all. Simplistically, the message seems to be that children from broken homes are doomed to misery, doomed to repeat the failures of their parents. He seems to be doing a compare and contrast exercise, conventional versus unconventional lifestyle, and concluding that whatever choices the sisters made, the end result would be the same – to die unhappy and unloved.

The writing is fine, plain and with no stylistic flourishes, but somehow I felt it lacked the penetrating beauty of the prose in Revolutionary Road. When reading a paper copy for review, I stick little post-it notes at passages I may want to quote, usually because I think they’re either beautiful or profound or, with luck, both. To my own surprise, when I finished this book, I found I hadn’t marked a single passage. The problem is not that it’s in any way badly written, it’s just rather unremarkable.

I also struggled to accept the characterisation. The main viewpoint is Emily’s, the unconventional sister. We follow her as she fails at one relationship after another, always because she seems to pair off with damaged men – the failed poet, the man who still loves his ex-wife, the man who has issues with his own sexual performance, etc. But I found that rather annoying and, dare I say it, a little misogynistic. Emily is intelligent, educated and successful in her career, but Yates makes it clear that this isn’t what a woman needs. She needs a successful relationship with a man, otherwise she will go to drink and the devil, probably ending up mad. Emily is doomed, however, never to find a decent man, though why this should be so is entirely unclear.

Richard Yates
Richard Yates

But meantime Sarah, who has gone the conventional route by marrying, has a husband who beats her – so she spirals into drink and despair, ending up in a psychiatric home. The same home as their mother – abandoned by her man – ended up in when she spiralled into drink and despair. (One wonders if they got a discount for quantity.) I’m pretty sure that Yates didn’t mean to imply that the only hope for women to escape the clutches of insanity is to marry well, but that leaves me wondering just exactly what he was trying to say.

I suspect the book may have been written at the height of the great ‘it’s all the parents’ fault’ craze, which people used as a method of absolving themselves of responsibility for their own actions; and, of course, at the height of the great psychiatry phase, when going to a ‘shrink’ was seen as the fashionable norm, rather than the exception, for the richer portion of society (a particularly American craze, that one – never took off to quite the same degree over here). In that sense, perhaps it does say something insightful about the time of writing, but it never felt wholly authentic to me.

I did find it very readable – the quality and flow of Yates’ writing ensured that. But when I got to the end, I felt I had simply spent time watching two sad and failed lives spelled out in great detail for no particular purpose, and without that sense of truth and insight that raised Revolutionary Road from commonplace misery to devastating tragedy.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 76…

Episode 76…

 

Where did it all go wrong?! I wrote this post on Sunday and boasted that the TBR had gone down 2. Since then it’s gone up again… by 4!! So now on 164 – I simply don’t understand it! It can’t be my fault…

Here are a few that will be rising to the top soon…

Factual

 

uprootedOoh, I wished for this on NetGalley, and my wish was granted! The first time that’s happened. Let’s hope it won’t turn out to be a case of “careful what you wish for”. I’ve actually cheated and already started it. (Which means – Yes!! Henry IV is finished!! Phew – I think the book was longer than his reign.)

The Blurb says: Who, or what, is the Green Man, and why is this medieval image so present in our precarious modern times? An encounter with the Green Man at an ancient Herefordshire church in the wake of catastrophic weather leads Nina Lyon into an exploration of how the foliate heads of Norman stonemasons have evolved into today’s cult symbols. The Green Man’s association with the pantheistic beliefs of Celtic Christianity and with contemporary neo-paganism, with the shamanic traditions of the Anglo-Saxons and as a figurehead for ecological movements sees various paths crossing into a picture that reveals the hidden meanings of twenty-first-century Britain. Against a shifting backdrop of mountains, forests, rivers and stone circles, a cult of the Green Man emerges, manifesting itself in unexpected ways. Priests and philosophers, artists and shamans, morris dancers, folklorists and musicians offer stories about what the Green Man might mean and how he came into being. Meanwhile, in the woods strange things are happening, from an overgrown Welsh railway line to leafy London suburbia. Uprooted is a timely, provocative and beautifully written account of this most enduring and recognisable of Britain’s folk images.

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Fiction

 

the easter paradeSince it’s over a year since Revolutionary Road won the FF Award for Literary Fiction 2014, it’s way past time I read more Yates. This one comes courtesy of Santa…

The Blurb says: In The Easter Parade, first published in 1976, we meet sisters Sarah and Emily Grimes when they are still the children of divorced parents. We observe the sisters over four decades, watching them grow into two very different women. Sarah is stable and stalwart, settling into an unhappy marriage. Emily is precocious and independent, struggling with one unsatisfactory love affair after another. Richard Yates’s classic novel is about how both women struggle to overcome their tarnished family’s past, and how both finally reach for some semblance of renewal.

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moon in a dead eyeContinuing on with my immersion in Pascal Garnier, next up is one that several people have said is their favourite. I’ve been categorising these as crime up till now, but I’m gradually concluding they really sit better in fiction. Courtesy of NetGalley…

The Blurb says: Given the choice, Martial would have preferred not to leave their suburban Paris life, but with all their friends moving away, or dying, his wife Odette is thrilled at the idea of moving to Les Conviviales, a gated retirement village in the South of France.

At first, Martial’s suspicions are confirmed. He and Odette are the only residents, and with the endless pouring rain, he is bored out of his mind. With the arrival of three new neighbours and a social secretary, Martial’s outlook improves and he begins to settle in to his new life. But in this isolated community, tensions never simmer far below the surface, and the arrival of some gypsies who set up camp outside the gates throws the fragile harmony into disarray. Everything comes to a head one terrible night; the night that the moon is reflected in the watchman’s eye…

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Crime

 

the dead witnessA People’s Choice winner from nearly 2 years ago, back when my TBR was a measly 96 (happy days!), it’s about time this one rose to the top of the heap. I have to tell you, People, you have a mixed history when it comes to your choices, so I hope this is one of your better efforts… 😉

The Blurb says: Gathering the finest adventures among private and police detectives from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries-including a wide range of overlooked gems-Michael Sims showcases the writers who ever since have inspired the field of detective fiction.

From luminaries Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Bret Harte, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle to the forgotten author who helped inspire Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to a surprising range of talented female authors and detectives, “The Dead Witness” offers mystery surprises from every direction. Introduced by Michael Sims’s insightful overview of detective fiction, “The Dead Witness” unfolds the irresistible antecedents of what would mature into the most popular genre of the twentieth century.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Literary Fiction

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Literary Fiction Category.

If you’ve been around the last couple of weeks, you might want to skip this bit and go straight to the awards. But for the benefit of new readers, a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

 

LITERARY FICTION

 

Regrettably, this has been the worst year I can remember for new literary fiction. In the entire year, only a handful of books achieved five-star status, and a couple of them already appeared in the FictionFan Shadow Booker Awards 2013. Of course, there might have been hundreds of brilliant books published that haven’t come my way, but I don’t get the impression from around the blogosphere that there are absolute must-reads out there that I’ve missed. Fortunately this dearth has been more than compensated for by the books I’ve read as part of the Great American Novel Quest, the vast majority of which have been superb – presumably that’s why they’re classics. As you will see, this year’s nominees reflect that…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the roadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

I’m a little surprised to be including this bleak dystopian novel as a runner-up. It is the tale of a man and a boy travelling through a landscape devastated by some unspecified disaster – probably a nuclear winter. At the time I was somewhat ambivalent about it, finding the writing style a little irritating, and feeling that the book thought it was more profound than it actually was. However I also found it “thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.” And indeed, it has stayed with me ever since I read it, and I find the images have become part of my literary landscape. It’s a book I find myself thinking about and referring to time and again, with the result that my opinion of it has continued to grow, to the extent that I would now count it as a great novel.

Click to see the full review

the road2

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Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury

arzee the dwarfDespite his lack of inches, Arzee is on the verge of achieving the two things he most wants out of life – to become the head projectionist of the Noor Cinema and to find a wife. But, as the poet tells us, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. And Arzee’s dream is about to be shattered when the owner of the run-down cinema decides to close it. This is the story of two weeks in Arzee’s life as he faces a future that has suddenly become dark and uncertain.

I loved Choudhury’s prose in this deliciously bittersweet comedy – there’s some beautifully phrased imagery, while the dialogue between Arzee and the various other characters provides much of the humour. Bombay is vibrantly portrayed – the Bombay of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Though there is depth and even some darkness in the story, the overall tone is light with almost the feeling of a fairytale to it. I found I became more and more enchanted with the book as I read and by the end was fully invested in Arzee’s hopes and dreams. This was truly an unexpected delight of a book and it still, ten months on, makes me smile each time I think of it.

Click to see the full review

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the sun also risesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemigway

Another entry that surprises me, and for the same reasons as The Road – I have found this one has stayed in my mind and my appreciation of it has continued to grow. By all rights, I should have hated it – a macho tale of men being men, drunken quarrels, bullfighting and the ‘lost generation’ of feckless wasters. But…some of the descriptions are excellent – the dusty journey to Pamplona, the passengers met by chance en route all merge to become a strikingly vivid picture of a particular place and time. As they all sit around drinking in Pamplona, I felt I could see the various cafés and bars clearly, almost smell them. The interactions between the ex-pats and the natives are brilliantly portrayed, particularly the growing disapproval from the real aficionados when Brett’s behaviour begins to threaten the traditions of the bullfight. And as for the arena itself, I found I was unexpectedly fascinated by his depiction of the rituals around the running of the bulls and the bullfighting. In the end I found that the picture that eventually emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all. And, with the benefit of a little more distance, the book has settled into a permanent place as an unforgettable read, fully justifying its inclusion as one of the best books I’ve read this year…or perhaps ever.

Click to see the full review

Painting credited to 'Matador Painter'
Painting credited to ‘Matador Painter’

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Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora websterThe last literary fiction novel I read in the period covered by the awards and so nearly the winner. When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Set in time and place between two of Tóibín’s earlier books, Brooklyn and The Blackwater Lightship, it seems to me that the three can be seen as a loose trilogy, giving a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And, of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. The only book published this year to make the shortlist….

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

 

revolutionary road

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Frank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.

When I reviewed it, I described this book as a masterpiece, and I hold to that opinion. Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere.

A book that encapsulates a certain time and place, at a moment when the traditional American Dream was about to be shattered and made anew, when roles were changing in the family and in the workplace, when both men and women were trying to figure out how to forge new ways of living in a world where increasing technological advances were rendering the old ways obsolete – this comes close to rivalling The Great Gatsby as my favourite American novel of all time.

A worthy winner indeed – however since, due to being dead, Mr Yates is unlikely to be producing any new novels in the near future, the prize will be that I will read something from his back catalogue – A Special Providence, I think.

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

kate winslet in RR

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Two weeks today: Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

GAN Quest: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

“No-one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

revolutionary roadFrank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.

Although Yates takes us into the minds of most of the characters at points, we mainly see the world through the eyes of Frank Wheeler. The book begins as April takes part in an amateur performance of The Petrified Forest – a play with the central theme of artistic and intellectual worth trapped in a loveless and humdrum existence, but where tragedy leads to escape. No coincidence that this should be the play that Yates chose, and no coincidence either that the performance should fail badly, leaving April publicly humiliated. Already in these early pages, Yates has signalled his major themes of intellectual elitism, entrapment and failure.

Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.

Frank once aspired to lead the life of an intellectual, perhaps to be a Hemingway, defying convention and rejecting the lifestyle of his parents. He was feted in his student days as one of the coming generation, a brilliant conversationalist who would (in some way that he never quite got around to pinning down) have an intellectual impact on the world. April – beautiful, cool, aloof – aspired to be a serious actress. Each attracted to the other’s projected image rather than to the underlying person, they seemed an ideal glittering match, until the reality of pregnancy forced them down the path of conventionality towards earning a living and making a home.

kate winslet in RR

Now they are trapped – by their children, by society, but mostly by each other. As they fail to be what they anticipated they see their failure reflected back to them from the other’s eyes. It is only when April comes up with a radical plan to allow them to regain their lost glamour as free-wheeling intellectuals that Frank begins to realise he may no longer have the courage to pursue this dream – to risk discovering that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal, the belief in which has been the foundation of his sense of snobbish superiority over his neighbours and colleagues. When April reveals that she is once again pregnant, for Frank it is an excuse to retreat back to the safety of his conventional life. But to April it’s another trap – to keep her in a lifestyle she never wanted and to prevent Frank from becoming the man she thought she was marrying. For April, the coming child is her prison – for Frank, it is his escape.

She cried because she’d had such high, high hopes about the Wheelers tonight and now she was terribly, terribly, terribly disappointed. She cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her only child was insane.

Yates is brutal to his characters, shining a light so bright there’s nowhere for them to hide. And through them, shining a light on this ’50s society, perhaps the last generation where women were still so irrevocably defined by motherhood and the men they married; and perhaps the first generation where men were beginning to question the role of masculinity in an increasingly white-collar world. Frank’s ambivalence towards his father is based on a mixture of intellectual condescension together with an unacknowledged jealousy of his physical skills, embodied in the recurring image of his father’s powerful hands.

Richard Yates
Richard Yates

Post-war, we see a generation of ordinary men who had access to higher education, often as the first in their family to do so. Where for Gatsby the American Dream was about money, birth and beauty, Yates shows the ’50s as a time of two dreams in conflict – the security of middle-class suburbia and the excitement of intellectual escape – with his characters caught between them. And yet Yates also seems to suggest that neither dream is worthy of pursuit – that somewhere along the way the lofty aspirations of previous generations have narrowed and shrunk down to this.

The place [Paris] had filled him with a sense of wisdom hovering just out of reach, of unspeakable grace prepared and waiting just around the corner, but he’d walked himself weak down its endless blue streets and all the people who knew how to live had kept their tantalizing secret to themselves, and time after time he had ended up drunk and puking over the tailgate of the truck that bore him jolting back into the army.

The ’50s were a time of huge change – the beginning of the decade still reflecting pre-war values and conventions, and the end looking forward to the surge of youth culture, sexual freedom and social upheaval that typified the ’60s. Yates brings the period brilliantly to life in this shortish novel that nevertheless has space to look not just at the characters as individuals but also at the society and culture they inhabit. His depiction of Frank’s workplace as a soulless maze of pointless paper-shuffling is superb, reflecting the growing struggle, for men in particular, to find some sense of fulfilment and worth when there is no physical input and no visible end result.

leo di caprio in rr

“Whaddya do then? Advertising man, or what?”
“ No, I work for Knox Business Machines.”
“Whaddya do there? You design the machines, or make them, or sell them, or repair them, or what?”
“Sort of help sell them, I guess. I don’t really have much to do with the machines themselves; I work in the office. Actually it’s sort of a stupid job. I mean there’s nothing – you know, interesting about it, or anything.”

Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere. A masterpiece.

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagA brilliant depiction of the hiatus between the war and the 60s and of the middle-class trying to work out a new identity in the post-war world – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagSubjective, but yes, I think so – the theme has been revisited since (and to some degree before – as Yates himself makes clear by referencing The Petrified Forest), but the setting, the climax and most of all the language within the dialogue make it innovative and original, so…achieved

Must be superbly written.

us flagMost definitely achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagOh dear…I’m going to change this criterion when I do a GAN Quest update, since I really think it’s unachievable and unreasonable. But meantime, no…this is about a specific group within America – young, white, educated, middle-class, so can’t be said to capture the entire American Experience. I also feel that, dialogue aside, the themes in this novel are not completely specific to the US – Britain and most of Western Europe were struggling with very similar issues of identity and aspiration at much the same period.

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So with great regret, not The Great American Novel, but for achieving 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare Revolutionary Road to be A Great American Novel. And another truly great novel – if all the ones on my list are as good as this, the quest will be a rare treat.

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Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your opinion…