Thursday, February 11, 2010

Revolutionary Road

I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so the 50s were a recent memory to which the current day was unfavorably compared.  It wasn't until later that the general pop culture allowed us to see that, like all eras, the 50s had both positive and negative sides.   Still, there was the occasional movie or book, like Revolutionary Road, which cast a jaundiced eye on the contemporary landscape.

Revolutionary Road showed the unpleasant and unhappy people behind the shiny curtain of 1950s suburbia.  April and Frank Wheeler married too young, had children before they were ready (if they'd ever be ready), and moved to the suburbs because it was expected.  They're miserable - a frustrated actress reluctantly keeping house and an insecure pseudo-intellectual in a do-nothing office job.  It's possible that neither would be happy in any life - wealthy April was abandoned by her parents as a toddler and raised by a remote aunt; born to older parents a generation after his brothers, Frank spent his childhood moving constantly as his father's sales career spiraled downward - but they seem to feed on each other's misery.  

The book opens with a community theater production that goes poorly.  April was the star, and after a few good scenes, gave as wooden a performance as the rest of her cast mates.  This starts a multi-day fight with Frank, and you get the idea that the two of them never have a reason for their disputes and yet are rarely on speaking terms with each other.  Against this bitter backdrop, they go through the motions of normal life - work, housework, drinks and dinner with a neighborhood couple.  Then April decides they should move to Paris - she's worked everything out, government agencies need secretaries and Frank can 'find himself' abroad - and at first this dream brings them back together.  They spend long nights discussing their dreams and making love.  

And then it falls apart.  Maybe he's afraid of change, maybe it's because he's actually engaged at work for the first time, or maybe he just sees the problems in April's plan, but Frank starts to waver.  Then April discovers that she's pregnant.  Neither really wants a third child, but a baby is a good way to postpone moving to Paris.  Maybe Frank really doesn't want to move, but is that a reason to see keeping April from self-aborting as a battle to win?  It's an uncomfortable passage.  For some, even contemplating abortion is reprehensible; and yet Frank seems concerned only with winning the battle with April, not with the baby.  Frank was never a particularly sympathetic character, but when he wins, he seems to let his crueler nature peek through.  That mean streak, and a pair of visits from their realtor's disturbed son, leads up to a fight that ends tragically for all.  

Revolutionary Road is depressing and compelling.  I knew from the start that the characters were doomed, but I wanted to know how.  The characters are generally unappealing, but I still wanted to know more about them, maybe find some redeeming characteristics.  

My copy of the book is a movie tie-in, so there's a picture of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the cover.  Normally, when I read a book that's been made into a movie I haven't seen, the cast doesn't influence how I see the characters, but for some reason I saw DiCaprio as Frank.  I'm not sure why (I haven't seen many of DiCaprio's movies), but I think it's because he looks uncomfortably boyish.  In his 30s, he still has a baby face but an adult presence.  He's one of those people whose age you can't place because he seems both younger and older than he actually is, and that's Frank - a world-weary but immature 30-year-old manchild.

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