The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates

Purchased at Chapters.ca

While this is the first Richard Yates’ book reviewed on this blog, it is certainly not the first that I have read. Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes introduced me to Yates a few years back (pre-blog) with an exceptional review of Revolutionary Road and I quickly dived into the back catalogue of this over-looked American author. Yes, his work is uneven, but I have enjoyed the journey and The Easter Parade is as good as it gets when you are looking for a first-class read.

It is worth noting that Yates is enjoying a deserved revival. Revolutionary Road was made into a not-very-good movie with top-flight stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) a couple years ago — even more important, the creators of the television hit, MadMen, apparently had all the cast read Revolutionary Road for context. MadMen (which is a favorite in the KfC video library) is, indeed, the up-dated, screen version of Yates’ fiction. After reading The Easter Parade, I would argue it is even more of an influence on the popular series than Revolutionary Road was.

Yates was born in 1926 and the strength of his fiction is his portrayal of Americans who came to maturity in the post-war years, as he himself did. Their adolesence was dominated by the Great Depression, their coming-of-age obscured by WWII and their early adult years pre-occupied with finding a niche in the world of post-war recovery.

Easter Parade has elements of all those themes, but its carefully-controlled focus adds even more to its value: how did young women cope with these challenges? The two central characters are the Grimes sisters, Sarah (born in 1921) and Emily (1925), and the over-arching story line is about how each struggles to find a path in the ever-changing American world of that era.

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.

Anybody who has read Yates knows that the alcoholic, unsuccessful mother is a constant presence in his fiction and you have to accept that if you read him. Having said that, he uses it (and one can only assume it reflects his own history) as a staging device, not a central theme. Certainly that is the way that it plays out in this novel.

Sarah will become the secondary, dull version of the two in this book (that doesn’t make her story any less important), but let’s deal with her first. Her response to the constant change around her is to grasp at some version of stability. Pookie’s lifestyle means frequent moves for her daughters as they grow up — here’s the way Yates portrays the sisters as Sarah enters adulthood:

There was another town after Bradley, and then still another; in the last town Sarah graduated from high school with no particular plans for college, which her parents couldn’t have afforded anyway. Her teeth were straight now and the braces had come off; she seemed never to sweat at all, and she had a lovely full-breasted figure that made men turn around on the street and made Emily weak with envy. Emily’s own teeth were still slightly buck and would never be corrected (her mother had forgotten her promise); she was tall and thin and small in the chest. “You have a coltish grace, dear,” her mother assured her. “You’ll be very attractive.”

Sarah opts for the marriage/motherhood option and marries Tony Wilson, an English public school product, who labors in an aircraft plant on Long Island, never advancing beyond the foreman stage because he doesn’t have the education that has become the ticket to promotion. One of his responses to his frustration is that he beats his wife — her need for stability and confirmation of the path she has chosen requires that she find ways to avoid confronting this abuse.

Emily, meanwhile, wins a scholarship to Barnard and embarks on a life that, a few decades later, will emerge as a pattern for the feminist movement. She’s smart and she’s independent — she is also more interested in exploring opportunities with men than in reaching the kind of blindless commitment that her sister has chosen. Given her family history with alcohol, it plays an important part in all those relationships. Emily falls into them easily — she becomes frustrated even more easily and quickly establishes a pattern of falling out of love ever bit as quickly as she falls into it.

That conceit gives Yates the palette to explore what is happening in the world around these sisters. Emily’s “committed” lovers include a poet who gets a two-year fellowship at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a senior counsel at a major New York chemical firm among others — Emily’s job in the ad business and the lovers’ careers serve as platforms for the author’s observations on what is happening in the “bigger” world at the time. None of this is relevant to Emily, as she is too busy discovering how the man of the time is inadequate. Here’s how Yates introduces her affair with a client, the legal counsel at National Carbon, a company that has invented Tynol, a fabric that “seemed almost certain to revolutionize the fabric industry — think what nylon did!”

Howard Dunninger filled her life. He was as appealing as Jack Flanders [the poet], with none of Jack’s terrible dependency; he seemed to make as few demands on her as Michael Hogan [another former lover from the public relations industry]; and when she sought comparisons for the way he made her feel in bed, night after night, she had to go all the way back to Lars Erickson [Emily’s first sexually-accomplished lover].

After the first few weeks they stopped using his apartment — he said he didn’t want to be constantly reminded of his wife — and started using hers. That made it easier for her to get to work on time in the morning, and there was another, subtler advantage: when she was a guest in his place there seemed to be a tentative, temporary quality to the thing; when he came to hers it implied a greater commitment. Or did it? The more she thought about this the more she realized that the argument might easily be reversed: when he was the visitor he could always get up and go away.

We know from the start of this novel that neither Sarah nor Emily will have a happy life — the power of the book is the way that it captures two very different paths to unhappiness. We are now far enough removed from the end of WWII that we know the Western world went through an eruption of change. What we perhaps don’t appreciate is how that change complicated the lives of the bit players who were at the centre of the hurricane, people like Sarah and Emily. Easter Parade was written in 1976 so we have had more than three decades since to refine our impressions — in reading this book, it is amazing how accurate Yates was in capturing some of those pressures.

I would argue that the popularity of MadMen illustrates that there is a continuing interest in just what life was like for young adults in the post-1945 age (most of the central cast on the show are of the same generation as the Grimes’ sisters, although they are entering their middle-age, high-earning years in the present tense of the show). Yates was interested in the world that produced that generation — The Easter Parade, like Revolutionary Road, is a vital contribution to that chronicle. Well-written, with fully-developed characters, it captures an era — what more can a reader ask from a novel?

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28 Responses to “The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates”

  1. Donovan Richards Says:

    Your Mad Men reference was all it took for me to put this book on my wish list! Thanks for the review!

  2. Trevor Says:

    This review is a reminder that I need to reboot my own Richard Yates reading. I had the goal to read them in the order he published them (not sure the utility of such a goal, but it’s there nevertheless), and I haven’t yet felt like it was time to read A Special Providence. Consequently, I have not read Easter Parade, though I know that if it weren’t for that strange goal I would have by now.

    I think it’s time for me to move forward. It’s been a few years since I last read him, so any thematic similarities will be less emphatic, and your review certainly put me in the mood.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Donovan: Your welcome. If you like the television show, I think you will find this book equally rewarding. Both do an excellent job of illustrating some of the pressures and disappointments of that exceptional time.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I knew from other reviews that Easter Parade was highly regarded, so I have been saving it for when I knew I would appreciate it. I wasn’t disappointed at all, despite my high expectations — indeed, it exceeded them. (A Special Providence is one of the Yates’ that I haven’t got to yet either, so no opinion on that one.)

  5. kimbofo Says:

    I read this book last year. It was my first Yates — it won’t be my last — and I loved it. I found it had a very authentic / sympathetic female voice, unusual in a male writer. (I’ve recently read a John O’Hara novel and found his portrayal of women was spot-on, too.)

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Thanks for raising that point about the female voice since it was something I could not find room for in the review itself. As a male, I found that both sisters were fully-formed, authentic characters — I respect your view, so I’m pleased to see that was a fair reaction on my part.

  7. savidgereads Says:

    This is the second rave set of thoughts on this book that I have seen in the last few weeks and so I am of course simply going to have to get my hands on it. Though of course it begs the question should this be my first or one to savour until the end? Should I instead start with ‘Revolutionary Road’ as its the one I already have?

    I have just done the list of five books which you use to choose me a book to read… if you pick Revolutionary Road its cheating hahahaha.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Simon: Ha — our comments did cross and I recommended this one! :-) If you already have a copy of Revolutionary Road, I’d read it first — while the two have some similarities in setting and theme, they also have a lot of differences — I can’t say which is the better book because it would depend on the mood.

    Also, if you have time in the library sometime, read one or two of Yates’ short stories — he is one of those authors who frequently uses that form to try out an idea that later turns into a novel.

  9. Guy Savage Says:

    I have this on my possible list, so thanks for the review. Still undecided….

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I’m certainly a Yates fan — he doesn’t correspond directly to your primary interests, but I do think you would find that he complements them.

  11. Kevin J MacLellan Says:

    Hi Kevin,
    This is an excellent review. I have only recently become aware of what Yates wrote – largely by way of the movie, Rev. Road – and was inclined to look him up. This review makes that intent more urgent. (I’ll probably also look at madmen, but let’s wait and see!)
    I have been a big fan of James T Farrell, who wrote through the same age and with a similar bleak realism, and I’m wondering if some comparisons can be made. Do they represent a sub-culture in American fiction (along with Algren, et alia) which was never fully acknowledged because the ‘message’ was too bleak for public tastes– as dictated by the media at the time? It’s a interesting question about an obviously good writer. Just as interesting is, that bloggers like you may do more to resurrect his reputation than Hollywood can!
    Nice job, and good luck. Keep up the good work.
    Regards,
    Kevin

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kevin: I can’t comment on comparisons with Farrell because I have not read enough of him. As for Yates, he was always well-reviewed and endorsed by a number of name writers (here’s a link to a Stewart O’Nan article that has an excellent history) but none of his novels sold more than 12,000 copies.

    It is only a hypothesis on my part, but I suspect a difficult personality may well have contributed to that — and when you consider who else was writing in his era, he was up against some pretty stiff competition.

  13. leroyhunter Says:

    Yates is a favourite, and I’m sure that I’ll get to reread all his stuff in time. I only have 2 of his novels left, Disturbing the Peace and A Special Providence.

    It’s true that he never strays too far from his key themes or situations, but in those elements he is magnificent.

  14. leroyhunter Says:

    I was glum typing that only 2 of his novels are unread: but I cheered up when I remembered that there are all the short stories as well.

    It’s an interesting point that kimbofo makes about John O’Hara. I read his Appointment in Samarra immediately after Revolutionary Road, and it didn’t suffer much in the comparison. However BUtterfield 8 was a bit of a let-down and none of his other works seem to have much of a reputation.

    The point about the female voices in their work is well made…as to how unusual that is for a male writer, well that’s a different debate!

  15. Mary Gilbert Says:

    I haven’t read this book yet though it’s on the shelf and I should do after your review as it has reminded me of what a great writer Yates is. Noone has mentioned Young Hearts Crying which I have read and which I thought was superb. In particular because the central protagonist is female and her portrayal echoes what Kimbofo says about Yates’s ability to give female characters an authentic voice. I think I stopped reading Yates for a while because I made the mistake of reading A Tragic Honesty Blake Bailey’s impressive biography of Yates. It’s quite hard to think of a sadder or more depressing tale as Yates squandered his happiness and talent in a downward spiral of alcoholism and ended his life in squalid loneliness.

    ps Thanks Kevin for your recommendation of Christoph Hein in the five book challenge. He’s a writer I don’t know and I look forward to finding out.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I read the short stories early in my Yates experience and would say that you have something special still waiting for you. For me, he stands in the front rank in that genre — although you are going to find that he doesn’t hesitate to “borrow” (some would say self-plagiarize) from his stories in later novels. I quite like the way that he uses the short story as a sketch that gets more fully developed later in a novel.

    I can’t comment on O’Hara — I think I read a couple some decades ago but I have no memory of them at all.

    And we will leave the debate about how many male authors can do persuasive female characters (I agree that Yates does in this book) for another day — although I’d have to tease by saying up front that I’m more inclined towards Kim’s opinion.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Yates is a good example of why I don’t read author biographies. I know enough about his life to know that it was a disaster — I suspect reading the biography would have produced the same reaction in me that it did with you. The sad fact is that some very excellent fiction is written by people who lead quite disappointing lives (John Fante is another who comes to mind). The reader in me quite likes the fiction — my more human side does have twinges of guilt then I know how much suffering was involved in producing it.

  18. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This does entice me. I thought Revolutionary Road a masterpiece and while A Good School isn’t nearly as strong (I wrote up both at mine) it’s still a novel which sits large in my memory. Larger than I think I would have expected when I read it.

    Which are seen as the weaker ones? I know this isn’t.

    Interestingly A Good School has a character named Draper. Nothing like Don, but I do wonder if it’s an intentional reference.

    Here the device of opening by telling us how it will end for both the women, then exploring their separate routes to unhappiness, it’s a clever one. A good way of exploring the poor choices women were (are?) presented with.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I’d forgotten the Draper reference in A Good School — I am willing to bet that is the source for Don’s name.

    I would put this with Revolutionary Road and A Good School in my front rank with Yates — along with the short stories I think are excellent in the genre.

    Yates’ strength is in the details so he doesn’t hesitate to give you the plot conclusion up front — no problem for me.

  20. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I must admit to being slightly disappointed that I’ve already read two in the first rank. Perhaps I should leave Easter Parade until I’ve read some of his slightly lesser works.

    “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”

    As Nabokov shows, there is nothing wrong with beginning at the end.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Nice touch with the Nabokov.

    I’d offer: “Maman died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”

  22. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That’s very hard to top Kevin. Such a good opening line. So very disquieting.

  23. Mrs.B. Says:

    This is the only Yates I’ve read and I loved it.

  24. Vicki Rush Siegel Says:

    I just finished Easter Parade, and loved it. However, it hasn’t changed my opinion that Yate’s short stories remain superior to his novels. Someone here has said his work is “uneven”, and I believe that to be true of his novels but not the short stories.

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Vicki: I certainly have a high opinion of the short stories. But I like the novels almost as well. I do agree that the short stories have a precision to them that is sometimes lacking in the novels.

  26. Vicki Rush Siegel Says:

    I’m curious if Yates was exploring how or if a woman can find completeness (the way Peter found enlightenment as well as a perfect partner) in the modern world. Emily had the capacity to choose but couldn’t attract her ideal partner. Maybe this was his attempt to explore his mother’s plight, and forgive it. Peter had a much easier road because women seek to complete themselves through men, so he had his choice. Yates portrayed women who don’t seek a partner at all as something less than a woman (the masterbation studio leader).

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Vicki: I’m afraid it has been too long since I read the book for me to add to your comment. But thanks for offering the thought.

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