As per usual, I had all sorts of preconcieved ideas about this book that proved to be completely wrong – if only there was a suitable book-related idiom about not judging things on appearances…
Frank and April are a married couple in 1950s America. He was meant to be ‘something’ but now works in a mundane office job he hates. She is beautiful, a trained actress and now playing the suburban wife and mother. No-one is happy. To begin with, I thought this was going to be well written but dry – from the first page I was writing down quotes in my little green book of nicely made phrases but I wasn’t really emotionally involved.
The trouble was that from the very beginning they had been afraid they would end by making fools of themselves and they compounded that fear by being afraid to admit it.
or big ideas about:
Economic circumstances might force you to live in this environment but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.
Actually, that last quote sounded very much like people working for big corporations on graduate schemes or the fast track ‘for the experience’ but who don’t quite buy into the ethos of it all. As does the whole idea of getting through mundane office work by plotting grand adventures. And so did the idea of not being able to back out of something that is meant to be thrilling and wildly enviable but actually really isn’t what you want at all. Suddenly Frank seemed more relatable (I always say this after characters show their weaknesses – apparently I only relate to the heavily flawed).
I’m not sure when it happened but there was a definite shift between Frank and April being theoretical and them suddenly becoming fleshed out, complex beings that mirrored that very human sense of flailing around trying to do this whole ‘life’ thing. Yates actually said that the theme of the book, if there was one at all, was
“If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”
How cheerful. You do feel that each character is operating in isolation. No-one really relates to anyone else; they don’t really talk to each other, listen to each other or even seem to care about each other all that much.
The concepts of mental health and mental illness ran through the book – not just in the introduction of Mrs. Givings’ son on day release from an asylum, but in the constant questioning of what was normal, and what was healthy – which one of them was really the mad one? Frank seemed riddled with imposter syndrome and possibly something more (his need to feel in control and superior is almost frightening). April appears to have at least elements of depression or anxiety. To me she seemed the most ‘normal’ but I suppose by that I mean the most human – the most feeling, the most aware.
Bonus quote because it’s funny:
He was half way across the room before he realised he had four sons
From: Rise, Bristol
Read: when I should have been packing (again)
Felt: Slightly detached at the start then drawn in as everyone became more human. In the end I stayed up till 1am to finish it so I guess that’s got to be a good sign!
Would recommend: Highly. It is definitely worth persevering with. Would probably make quite a good bookclub book – lots of themes and open ended ideas to discuss.