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?