Friday, 13 April 2012

Something for the weekend

The Easter Parade – Richard Yates

This is the first Richard Yates novel I’ve read and I’ve already started another one. The Easter Parade is Yates’s fourth novel and is set, like most of his work, in and around New York and its suburbs. It concerns The Grimes sisters, Sarah and Emily, and starts by saying neither of them "would have a happy life". Despite this opening, you still find yourself routing for the characters to make something of their lives.
The book mainly follows Emily, the younger sister, from the 30s through to her death in the 70s. Like Yates himself, the Grimes sisters’ parents get divorced, leaving their mother, Pookie, to try to support her daughters financially (with help from the father) and to raise them to have good lives. Pookie, like many of the mothers Yates writes, has delusions of being special – delusions which is transfers onto her daughters. The central theme of the book is the relationship between the 3 women and they all grow older, look for love and try to tolerate each other.

Sarah falls into the typical life of marriage and babies and seems to Emily to be living an ideal, if small life. She has 3 sons and a husband who earns a small but steady income. But as the book progresses and the sisters age, we gradually find out that Sarah’s husband is abusive and violent towards Sarah and always has been. Sarah, like her mother before her, turns to drink and becomes prematurely middle aged and even old. There is a beautiful scene when Sarah visits Emily in New York and Emily is shocked to see how he sister has aged, put on weight and put on her best clothes which seem old fashioned and frumpy in the city.

Emily is the main focus of the book, and takes a less conventional path in her life. She has several shorter affairs, including a very short marriage and works to support herself. She has dreams of being a journalist, like her father but ends up in slightly underwhelming copy-writing jobs. Pookie apparently admired Emily for being a ‘free spirit’ but this is the romanticised outside view of a lonely unfulfilled woman who still dreams that she will meet the right man one day. Emily’s romanticism and innocence as a child never quite leaves her. When confronted by a new experience as a very young girl, her answer is always "I see" even though she doesn’t see. She continues to say this as an adult, though she does become self-aware enough to realise she never understands.

Yates’s novel is full of beautifully drawn, real characters, with tiny details about them making them all the more representative of American society in the mid-twentieth century. There is a scene where Pookie is sitting on a sofa and as she gets more and more drunk, her skirt rides up more and more; and Emily tracks the drunkenness by how much of her mother’s thighs she can see. All of the characters drink to excess, though this has to be taken in view of what was done generally at the time. Through Pookie and Sarah, though, we do see the destructive nature of alcoholism.

I loved The Easter Parade but found myself wondering at the end whether any of the characters are likeable. I can’t decide if this matters. You do find yourself hoping that they will achieve something with their lives, though we know they are doomed to depressing unfulfilled lives from the opening line of the book. They are all human, with human flaws (such as selfishness overriding the desire to help a family member) but they never feel sorry for themselves. I think this is the key to making it such a brilliant portrait of real people which everyone should read.


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