… she would drink nothing for a week except a beer or a glass of wine after work each day.

The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates

Where to start with such a book? Perhaps with the opening paragraph which is sufficiently brilliant that it leaves anything I might say quite redundant:

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce. That happened in 1930, when Sarah was nine years old and Emily five. Their mother, who encouraged both girls to call her ‘Pookie,’ took them out of New York to a rented house in Tenafly, New Jersey, where she thought the schools would be better and where she hoped to launch a career in suburban real estate. It didn’t work out – very few of her plans for independence ever did – and they left Tenafly after two years, but it was a memorable time for the girls.

easter-parade

The Easter Parade is a study in disappointment, and that first paragraph sets the stage beautifully. Leaving aside the power of that first sentence let’s look at some of the other elements for a moment: we know that ‘Pookie’ wants to be seen by her daughters more as friend than authority figure; the cutesy nickname suggests she might not be very practical which is immediately confirmed by that unsuccessful move to Tenafly and by that aside on her various plans; and then that final coda that “it was a memorable time for the girls” which somehow makes the whole thing infinitely sadder.

Easter tracks the Grimes sisters from childhood through to middle age. Sarah is the pretty one, popular and conventional. Emily lacks her sister’s curves and confidence but is both more independent and clearer-sighted. Early on they travel to the city to see their father. They think he’s an important journalist and are shocked when he explains that he’s “only a copy-desk man”. Sarah still boasts of him at school; Emily reminds her afterwards of the diminished reality.

Sarah saves herself through adolescence and marries a dashing and popular boy named Tony who has English parents and movie-star good looks. It’s what a good girl does and he seems a good catch, but we know from that opening sentence that the marriage won’t make her happy.

Emily meanwhile loses her virginity to a soldier on leave whom she never sees again, goes to college and then gets jobs in journalism and ultimately in advertising. Where Sarah chose marriage, family and domesticity Emily chooses independence and a career, but we still have that opening sentence reminding us that neither sister has a happy life.

The writing, as ever with Yates, is exquisite. I loved this description of part of Emily’s encounter with that soldier:

Somewhere above Forty-second street he kissed her. It wasn’t the first time she had been kissed – not even the first time she’d been kissed on top of a Fifth Avenue bus; one of the boys in high school had been that brave – but it was the first kiss of its kind, ever.

Despite that theme of disappointment, or perhaps because of it, there are no great tragedies here. Sarah would count losing her virginity to a random soldier as a disaster but Emily doesn’t suffer any for it. There are deaths, but from illness or age (perhaps sometimes exacerbated by too much to drink for too long, but natural all the same). Nobody is murdered; nobody dies in a car crash or rail collision; aliens don’t invade; the world doesn’t end; life carries on.

Years slip by sometimes in a sentence. Sarah and Emily drift apart. Each of them wants a little of what the other has perhaps because neither has a whole life. But then, who does? We all have to make choices.

Sarah dreams of doing some writing and her early efforts suggest talent, but her husband isn’t interested and she’s not part of that world. Nothing she writes ever gets finished and nobody really cares except her.

Emily meanwhile marries a man who comes to resent her for his impotence and some years later moves with an aging poet named Jack to a writer’s workshop in Iowa where he hopes to rediscover his early talent. Like Sarah, Emily tries putting her man ahead of herself and briefly abandons her career to support Jack’s but he too comes to resent her when his writer’s block fails to clear. Somehow Sarah can’t unlock the door to Emily’s creativity, nor Emily the door to Sarah’s domesticity.

There’s a sense that it all tracks back to their parents. To their father who considered himself a failure and who wrote headlines for a minor newspaper whose politics he disagreed with. To their mother with her fantasies of a grandeur and an elegance she could never realise. But perhaps that’s too easy, because none of the other characters seem any happier and they don’t all have divorced parents.

Early on in the novel Sarah and Tony go to watch the Easter Parade. They’re photographed there, young and happy and full of life and love. It’s paradise captured in a Kodak moment. Perhaps that’s the clue to this novel. Happiness is fleeting. Life can’t be frozen in a snapshot; kept inviolable against age and defeat.

Tony’s career never takes off. Sarah drinks too much and grows fat and dowdy. Emily is successful but lonely. Pookie dissolves into her own fantasies. Years after their breakup Emily sees a review of Jack’s new volume of poetry which he’s finally managed to write. It’s lacklustre and the reviewer quickly moves on to a newer poet.

If Tony and Sarah had died that day at the Easter Parade, if some chunk of masonry had fallen from a building flattening them both, then their lives would have been judged happy to that point. People would mourn their lost potential; their bright future. Instead they lived and the future turned out not to be so bright after all. It’s not the divorce that makes the Grimes’ sisters’ lives unhappy. It’s living.

I’ll end with one final quote from fairly early in the novel. Here Emily and Pookie are visiting Sarah and Tony who’re now set up in a home of their own. Sarah is married as she wanted, Emily’s at college as she wanted. Pookie can see her daughters doing well for themselves. They should all be happy and yet …

[Sarah] served a lunch that was almost as inadequate as one of Pookie’s meals; then the problem was that the conversations kept petering out. Sarah wanted to hear ‘everything’ about Barnard, but when Emily began to talk she saw her sister’s eyes glaze over in smiling boredom. Pookie said “isn’t this nice? Just the three of us together again?” But it wasn’t really nice very nice at all, and for most of the afternoon they sat around the sparsely furnished living room in attitudes of forced conviviality. Three women with nothing much to say to one another. Color illustrations of Magnum Navy fighter planes in action occupied one wall; on another was the framed Easter photograph of Sarah and Tony.

I suspect I’ve made this sound bleak and to be fair a novel about the disappointments of life can’t help but be a little bleak. However, the honesty and the beauty of the writing takes it above that. This is a sad novel, but not a depressing one. As it closes nobody is any the wiser, but life continues. It may not always be all we’d wish, but it’s the only game in town.

Other reviews

Jacqui over at Jacqui Wine’s Journal pushed me over the line into reading this (I’ve owned it for ages). Her review is here. Jacqui also linked to reviews by Kim at Reading Matters here and by guest reviewer Carly at Tomcatintheredroom here.

Carly’s review picks up two key themes that I wish I’d picked up above, but it felt like cheating to change my review to follow hers. They’re the theme of the pursuit of art as an unsuccessful route to meaning which crops up repeatedly here; and the devastating quality of small heartbreaks. Carly quotes an exchange that she calls “one of the most quietly devastating in any work of fiction” and I can’t disagree with her. Follow the link above to see it for yourself.

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14 Comments

Filed under Yates, Richard

14 responses to “… she would drink nothing for a week except a beer or a glass of wine after work each day.

  1. It seems like a long time ago I read all of Richard Yates’ novels and stories. I used to have a major fixation on him. He is one of the greats, and I recall ‘Easter Parade’ being one of his many best.
    Some people thought his work was a bit depressing, but I didn’t find it that way.

  2. It’s lucky he published it in 1976 because it sounds like the opposite of the kind of book most publishers are looking for these days, and perhaps all the more refreshing for that!

  3. I’m so glad you liked this, Max. It’s probably one of my all-time favourites, so I find it hard to be objective about this – I just want to gush and persuade everyone I know to read it! As you say, the writing is exquisite, all the more so given the quiet tragedies that run through the story. I love what you about Sarah and Tony being photographed at the Easter Parade: paradise captured in a Kodak moment. That’s it exactly. There’s a sense of unreality about that scene, almost as though it is artificial or too idealised in a way – as a couple, they never really experience the same sense of happiness again.

    I agree with you about the start of the novel too. Yates is so good when it comes to opening lines/paragraphs – here’s how Disturbing the Peace begins:

    Everything began to go wrong for Janice Wilder in the late summer of 1960. And the worst part, she always said afterwards, the awful part, was that it seemed to happen without warning.

    Another devastating opener. This novel isn’t in in the same league as The Easter Parade, but it’s still very good.

    Anyway, fantastic review – and thanks for the pingback, very kind.

  4. I read and reviewed thus earlier thus year and felt a lot like you. The writing makes the bleakest story luminous.
    I’m planning on reading another if his noveks If finish a short story collection. If you haven’t read them yet you’ll like them because many are like studies for the longer work. I think there was one that was a lot like this.
    Overall thus wasn’t the greatest reading year but the Yates novels I read.

  5. What a wonderful opening paragraph. I have a couple of Yates on the TBR, but I’m not sure if this is one of them.

  6. Jonathan

    I’m glad you liked it too—I loved it, it’s beautifully bleak. But doesn’t all the bleakness make the little bit of hope at the end of the book even more uplifting?

  7. I read this years back and just didn’t get it – maybe I was in the wrong place for it at the time and not quite ready for the bleakness. Perhaps I should try again!

  8. Thank you so much for your wonderful review. When I was a teenager I kept “`11 Kinds of Loneliness” under my pillow and reread it many times. It was one of the best trainings I got in the art of humane imagination.

  9. Tony, I didn’t find it depressing as I say at the end there, and as Jonathan alludes it’s not entirely without hope either. This is remarkable. I’ve reviewed two of his previously here and this is up with Revolutionary Road (and makes me see why A Good School, much as I enjoyed it, is seen as lesser Yates).

    Alastair, I’d hope the quality of the prose would still carry it through today. I wonder even then how easy his brand of slightly bleak realism was as a sell, initially at least.

    Jacqui, it blew me away. I thought book of the year was long-settled but this is a definite contender. I thought it worth thinking a little about why the book was titled after that photo, what it might signify, though I’m sure others would have other thoughts.

    Cathy, isn’t it? This is one of his best but as far as I can tell he didn’t write a bad book so if it’s not one you have you can enjoy those you do and know you have one of his greats for later.

  10. Jonathan, yes, I absolutely agree. I should probably have drawn that out more. The hope is small, but proportionate. It’s not after all a novel of grand moments.

    Kaggsy, I think it is worth a revisit. It’s not actually that bleak, partly because there is that sense that life goes on regardless and it’s worth it going on. It’s not a slash your wrists after reading novel by any means. Then again, perhaps you’d be better trying one of his others for a change of approach?

    Gubbinal, thank you for that lovely comment. The art of humane imagination, well put.

  11. Someone asked me about the title when I reviewed it, and I wondered what Yates was trying to say, particularly as so much of his work seems concerned with the illusion of the American Dream. In some ways that idealised image of Sarah and Tony is just a facade, a veneer that hides the underlying reality and disappointments in life.

  12. Great to see Yates reviewed again. I’ve only the stories left to read, and have been saving them. I’d like to reread all (or most) of the novels though – this and Road for sure.

    The title question is an interesting one. I wonder if there’s an ironic, “April is the cruellest month” quality to it: Easter: the marked failure of the protagonists to achieve a much-desired rebirth or resurrection of hope; the parade that we know trails off into ashes and disappointment.

    Am constantly amazed that Yates doesn’t make this stuff throat-slittingly depressing. He was a master in some ways.

  13. Caroline, I’m sorry I missed your comment, I must somehow have scrolled over it without realising. Luminous is a good word for it. I have the short stories but haven’t read them yet. I’m very hopeful that I’ll like them.

    Jacqui, agreed, and I think that facade idea is fairly key to his work (or at least his work that I’ve read so far).

    Ian, I think you’re right that it is amazing he doesn’t make this stuff overwhelmingly depressing. He’s like Toibin for me in that (though not in much else) – his talent is such that material which in lesser hands would be bleak or dull becomes beautiful.

  14. Pingback: 2016 end of year roundup | Pechorin's Journal

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