For anyone who hasn’t read Revolutionary Road, the story goes something like this: two bright young people, Frank and April, meet and fall in love in New York City; an accidental pregnancy sends them to the suburbs and traps Frank in a corporate job he scorns. As the years slip away and their seemingly destined great achievements remain out of reach, they decide to take matters into their own hands and move to Paris, where Frank can “find himself” while April supports him. Their planning rejuvenates them, but it ultimately goes awry because of yet another unplanned pregnancy. Frank is secretly relieved; April is devastated. Her death at the end is a tricky blend of accident and suicide.
This bare-bones summary ignores pretty much everything that makes this book so brutally amazing: The self-consciousness of every word the Wheelers speak. The secret pride Frank feels in his work, which he is forced to continuously deny through bitter irony and distain lest he be just like everyone else. The excruciating earnestness of the Laurel Players and their awful play, and the pathetic, shattered idea that this local theatre group could somehow redeem the Wheelers’ disappointment and unhappiness. The corrosive effect that inertia can have on a marriage; and the rending horror that arises when one person’s dream changes, while the other’s does not.
I spent much of yesterday immersed in Yates’s world, skimming parts of the book in the afternoon and then seeing the movie last night. It was a wrenching film, the Wheelers’ arguments and fragile reconciliations almost unbearable to watch, but we both—predictably—lamented all that the film had left out. It wasn’t a disappointment; it just felt incomplete. Nonetheless, we cast uneasy glances at each other as we drove home, pointing out the Wheelers’ tragic errors and reassuring ourselves that no matter how bad things might get, we would never wind up like that.
Fortunately, we’re not Frank and April; and any dissatisfaction we feel with our current life just brings us closer together in a shared resolve to escape. You won’t see any screaming, brutal fights in our household, nor the needling waltz of blame and accusation that permeates the Wheelers’ conversations like an accent or a lisp. But it’s a little disconcerting to hear echoes of the Wheelers’ desperate Paris plan in our own half-formed plans and possibilities—maybe Andrew’s next job will take us back to Europe; maybe we’ll ditch everything and teach English in Asia for a year—as though simple physical, geographical distance will make some kind of difference, lead to some elusive fulfillment that we can’t quite pin down.
Of course, more likely is that we’ll wind up in a house much like the Wheelers’, with kids and a yard and a book-lined living room and a plan to build a stone path by hand, with jobs not much different from those we have now—and that we’ll feel perfectly content. There’s nothing wrong with such contentment, as long as it takes place in a charming setting and not a cookie-cutter cul-de-sac. But today, with Revolutionary Road fresh in my mind, it’s all too tempting to confuse contentment with complacency and wonder if we shouldn’t be working just a little bit harder to get ourselves where we really want to be.
(Yes, Andrew, I’m taking the movie just a little personally, which you specifically warned me last night—as a condition of your attendance—not to do. I’ll be over it soon, I promise.)