Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Sunday 4 January 2009 00.01 GMT
t is the summer of 1955 and Frank and April Wheeler are living what to many at the time must have seemed the American dream: a spacious, suburban house, two cheerful, blond children, wholesome neighbours and, for Frank, a generously paid and gratifyingly undemanding job in Manhattan. From the start of Revolutionary Road, however, it is clear that all is far from well. The Wheelers might be young, beautiful and full of promise, but they harbour little affection for each other. Frank's job, as he has no hesitation admitting, is "the dullest ... you could possibly imagine". And April, too, is bored.
So she devises an escape plan, one that will enable Frank to quit Knox Business Machines and realise his potential while she works, at least until her husband finds an occupation more suited to a Columbia graduate and literate war veteran. As Richard Yates's masterly debut novel unfolds, however, it becomes apparent that though Frank might rail against the anaesthetic suburbs, he lacks the imagination or boldness for change; as his self-deception deepens, so his marriage unravels.
First published in 1961, Revolutionary Road is a work of serious moral intent - often caustic and arch about the shortcomings of its characters - but also extremely funny. It's gripping without resorting to melodrama; the plot turns on events that are entirely at one with the characters' dilemmas. Yates, who died in 1992, wrote six further novels and two collections of short stories, but it's for Revolutionary Road that he's rightly best known. It's one of the best novels ever written about the difficult but necessary work of finding out who one really is - and living life accordingly.