Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Enough to bruise a heart

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

(Vintage) Pp. 226

Along with Revolutionary Road, this compact and expressive work is considered to be one of Richard Yates’ finest novels. His vision of all-American self-loathing and entrapment is bleak and painful to read, while his characters are well drawn with sharp outlines. The opening line sets the tone: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” From there it is all steadily downhill and increasingly out of control.

The two sisters are Sarah and Emily: “Sarah was the dark one, with a look of trusting innocence that would never leave her; Emily, a head shorter, was blond and thin and very serious.” The novel is comprised of short descriptions without excessive detail; Yates tells stories and expresses thought and emotions succinctly. Over a span of forty years the girls grow up: their father leaves; they get careers and relationships and marriage and children; their mother, Pookie, goes into a home; and they try and live a life and be happy, but they aren’t.

Sarah marries an abusive man and succumbs to suburban depression; Emily has a succession of men; Pookie constantly tries to make up for being left by a man: they are all dominated by the need for male approval and validation, which chimes discordantly in this era. They seem to only validate their existence through male eyes. When Emily questions her older sister as to why she stays with a man who beats her, Sarah answers, “It’s a marriage. If you want to stay married, you learn to put up with things.” Emily suspects there may be alternatives and goes to college to major in English.

She moves to the city and takes on a series of not-very-important jobs in advertising, losing herself in unfulfilling relationships and drink. She begins to feel disillusioned as she ages. What options were there for women? Emily tells Sarah she could leave her husband and do something else, but what? “The only thing she could picture was Sarah working as a receptionist in some doctor’s or dentist’s office. (Where did all those pleasant, inefficient middle-aged ladies come from, and how had they gotten their jobs?)”

The relationships are all full of anger and spite, and the writing reflects this nasty misogyny. Emily’s husband, Andrew, tells her in intimate detail how much he hates her body (when they have been married for less than a year) in a degrading and objectifying manner, with no consideration of her mind. “I hate your sensitive little tits. I hate your ass and your hips, the way they move and turn; I hate your thighs, the way they open up. I hate your waist and your belly and your great hairy mound and your clitoris and your whole slippery cunt.”

These women are constantly trying to numb themselves from the sharp edges of the world in which they live. They turn inward, but they don’t like what they see there either, in what is a novel of profound sadness where the omnipresence of alcohol and ill health (both mental and physical) are reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill.

When the girls are young, Sarah dresses up to participate in the Easter Parade with her beau, and they are photographed in an image which will cause Emily lasting jealousy of their frozen-in-time happiness. But, whereas Easter usually signals new beginnings and hope, this is Richard Yates, so there is only stagnation and despair. This book may be small, but it is powerful, and the punch it packs is enough to bruise a heart.

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