After four novels, including Revolutionary Road (1961) and Disturbing the Peace (1975), and a distinguished collection of short stories, Richard Yates has made it clear what kind of territory he has staked out for himself. It is a narrow world in some ways, but he has explored it in depth and with a consistent brilliance and growing sureness. He specializes in characters who are falling apart, who cannot keep a grip on their lives, or those who fail in the struggle to find themselves. In general they are youngish educated professionals; they work for newspapers, magazines, or ad agencies in New York, or they teach; they live in suburbia or the City. They are often self-destructive, tend to drink too much, drift from one affair to the next, go into analysis, have nervous breakdowns, lose their jobs. All in all, it is a bleak vision of life in contemporary metropolitan America—but at least we are in the presence of a novelist with a vision.
The Easter Parade continues to explore some of the themes of Yates’s Disturbing the Peace, whose alcoholic protagonist wound up in an asylum. The opening sentence of the novel sets the tone and suggests the theme: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” A perfect sentence for the grim narrative which follows.
In The Easter Parade Yates explores the failure of marriage in modern America, among other related themes. The novel begins with the divorce of the parents of the Grimes sisters and follows their unhappy lives for the next forty years. Walter Grimes, whom his daughter Emily scarcely knows, is ineffective and a born loser. A college dropout, he had dreams of being a famous reporter, but he is saddled with a job as headline writer for a second-rate newspaper. (It is a conservative paper, and he is a liberal.) He is insecure, drinks too much, has a number of mistresses, and dies in his early fifties—though he continues to haunt the lives of his two daughters. He is a failed writer, and both of his daughters try their hand at writing. They, too, are dismal failures.
Esther Grimes (she insists that her daughters call her Pookie) is a flighty, empty, flirtatious woman who divorces Walter because of her need for freedom. She is unable to establish anything like a stable environment for her daughters, much less a model for them to emulate. Restlessly moving from job to job, always living beyond her means, her life is rootless, instead of free. As she ages, she becomes an alcoholic (like so many of Yates’s characters), a parasite on her hapless daughters. After a stroke she lives out her days in an asylum thinking her youngest daughter has married President Kennedy. The steady downward curve of her life suggests the fate of her two daughters, both of whom inherit her delicate “nerves.”
Sarah, the elder of the two sisters and the beauty in the family, starts off promisingly enough. After a romantic courtship, she marries Tony Wilson, a promising young man who looks like Laurence Olivier, and goes to live at an “estate” (Pookie’s term) on Long Island. However, after her three sons are born, her marriage begins to sour. As she, like her mother, drifts into alcoholism, she seems to bring out a brutal streak in her husband, who begins to abuse her. In the end, after several half-hearted attempts to break away from her marriage, she is confined to the same hospital with Pookie, eventually dying of a fall while intoxicated. Guilt-ridden and unstable, her sister comes to believe that Sarah was murdered by her husband.
Emily Grimes is at the center of the novel; it is through her eyes that we see the death and funeral of her father, the pathetic decline of her mother and battered sister. Though she is aloof and condescending at times toward her feckless kin, the reader realizes that she is no stronger, or better, than they.
Emily provides something of a contrast to Sarah. She is rather plain, skinny, and introspective. She is also jealous of Sarah’s beauty and her...
(The entire section is 1686 words.)