A couple of years ago in my book club we read Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I loved it. I vowed to read more by Yates, but hadn’t gotten around to it until just now, when I read The Easter Parade. This is the story of two sisters, Sarah and Emily – how their lives were shaped by the same events but become so different, how each of them struggles to find happiness and ultimately fails. The sisters are young adults in the 1940s and 1950s, so the story lines are familiar: one sister is a suburban housewife with too many kids and the other is a city career girl who can’t seem to find a good man.
The beauty of Yates’ stories is the way that, with just a few words and well-chosen anecdotes, he creates a portrait of a person that feels incredibly complete. You really feel that you know the characters. When he describes how the girls’ mother insisted that they call her “Pookie” and had an obsession with having “flair”, you have a picture of her that fits with everything else she does throughout the story. He is, quite simply, a beautiful and insightful writer: “But she stopped crying abruptly when she realized that even that was a lie: these tears, as always before in her life, were wholly for herself — for poor, sensitive Emily Grimes whom nobody understood, and who understood nothing.”
As a younger sister myself, I enjoyed the portrait of two sisters. Carrie and I are, of course, nothing like the sisters in the book. But when we were younger we were incredibly different, as are Sarah and Emily. It’s always interesting to look back on our childhood and wonder how we experienced many of the same things, yet turned out so differently. As we’ve gotten older, though, it seems like we are more and more alike. I think it’s because we’ve both mellowed a bit and become less extreme versions of ourselves. The masks we put on to cope with the teenage years and young adulthood have become less necessary and we’ve become more comfortable in our skin. And as it turns out, our skin is more alike than we thought. In the book, Sarah and Emily never come to that sense of sameness. It’s just one of many things in the book that made me sad.
Both Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade have a sense of life that is ultimately unhappy. Characters make bad decisions, but that is not the only reason they are unhappy. There is a real feeling that happiness is illusory and no matter what decisions one makes, one can never achieve it. When I read Revolutionary Road a few years ago I was very unhappy. My sense of life was also that happiness was unattainable – something that people talk about but no one actually has. So Revolutionary Road really resonated with me. But, luckily for me, I got out of the various situations that made life seem so hopeless at that time. Now I’m in a caring, respectful and peaceful marriage, I have a beautiful daughter, and I no longer work at a hellish job. Life is good! So as I read The Easter Parade, I found myself mostly just feeling sorry for the characters. But I didn’t feel like one of them anymore.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I think life is going to be all roses and sunshine from here on out. And it’s not right now. Moving across the country to a city where you know no one is very stressful. And having a baby that doesn’t sleep is exhausting to the point of being almost unbearable. But my outlook on life is positive, whereas three years ago it was hopeless. That makes a big difference.
And yet, what would The Easter Parade be with a happy ending? Definitely not the right book. I haven’t read anything else by Yates, but given his writing style and subject matter, I would never pick up a book by him and expect a happy ending. In fact, most serious literature does not have “happy endings.” The ending might not be all bad, though: there might be redemption, a new understanding or awareness, a breaking with the past or a new beginning. But I can’t think of a serious book, particularly more modern fiction, with what we might call a happy ending. (There’s always a happy ending in Jane Austen, but that seems somewhat antiquated to the modern reader.) Why is this so? Does it more accurately reflect our reality? Life doesn’t come in book-sized packages; there’s always more to come at the end of the story, and it might not all be good. Maybe that’s why we prefer an ending that leaves room for ambiguity or a new perspective.
But maybe the lack of happy endings is a reflection of the personality types of the majority of authors and readers of serious literature. Is the unhappy artist to blame? This is starting to relate to a post I’m currently working on about Proust on Art, so I’ll leave it at that for now. More to come soon!