Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Yates, Setting, USA, Vintage

‘Cold Spring Harbor’ by Richard Yates

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 192 pages; 2008.

Ever since I read Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade, I’ve wanted to read more by this very talented and much respected American author. And so, a week or so ago — during a long four-hour layover at Bangkok Airport, en route to Phnom Penh — I settled down with Cold Spring Harbor, which was first published in 1986 and turned out to be the last novel before he died (in 1992, aged 66).

Set in the mid-1930s, just before the war and during it, it tells the story of two families — the Shephards and the Drakes — and their unlikely coming together.

The lynchpin of the story is Evan Shephard, a good-looking man with no direction and a deep love of automobiles, who meets young Rachel Drake by chance (his car breaks down, en route to New York, outside her childhood home) and later marries her. He already has one failed short-lived marriage behind him, and a young daughter, but his parents hope this will give their only son the fresh start he needs.

Later, when war breaks out, Evan is rejected because he has perforated eardrums, a decision that delights his wife (because it means he can stay at home) but disappoints his father (a former Army captain who had hoped a stint in the army might help his immature son grow up).

To save enough money to fund future university studies so Evan can become an engineer rather than a machinist, the couple move in with Rachel’s mother, the larger-than-life socially needy Mrs Drake, in a small house in Cold Spring Harbor, not far from where Evan grew up. Rachel’s younger brother still lives at home when he’s not at boarding school, so the house is relatively crowded (and damp).

Life in a crowded house

Thrust together in this way, the tensions between everyone fester and stretch to breaking point. The novel is at its best focusing on these relationships, examining in almost forensic detail the ways in which they begin to unravel, but also honing in on the strained contact between the in-laws and the even more strained relationship between Evan and his father.

It’s an immensely readable book, because even though nothing much happens plot wise, the characters are so well drawn, so believable and so intriguing you get completely drawn in to their domestic dramas. Yates is brilliant at showing the inner-workings of the human heart and mind. His characters are deeply flawed, full of doubts and self-delusion, quietly getting on with troubled lives but never quite having the confidence (or financial backing) to make something better of themselves.

He’s just as good at writing about troubled teenaged boys as he is young women, and the cast of characters in this novel provide more than enough material to showcase this extraordinary ability.

Cold Spring Harbor could be described as a portrait of a marriage, but it is so much more than that — it’s also a wonderfully insightful examination of parental expectations and how families exert a hold long into adulthood. I loved it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Richard Yates, Setting, Vintage

‘The Easter Parade’ by Richard Yates

Easter-Parade

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 240 pages; 2008.

If ever a first line was to set the tone for the rest of the book, it is this one: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.”

The sisters are Sarah and Emily, separated by four years — and a whole host of differing personality traits. Sarah, the eldest, is confident and pretty; Emily is intellectual. Both choose to lead very different lives — Sarah marries young and starts a family, Emily pursues a career — but neither of them find happiness.

There’s not much more to the story than that, but in Richard Yates’ carefully understated writing style there is a real emotional depth that resonates long after you’ve reached the final page. The more distance I put between the book and writing this review, the more I’ve come to appreciate the tragic beauty of these sisters’ wasted lives.

First published in 1976, The Easter Parade was Richard Yates’ fifth novel. It is set in New York and covers a 40-year period from the 1930s to the 1970s. It provides a fascinating glimpse of two opposing views of womanhood — that of wife and mother, and that of single women who pursue fulfillment through work — ideas that seem unusual for a male author to write about with such aplomb and insight. Indeed, male characters are few and far between in this novel, and when they do appear they are relatively weak and spineless.

For instance, the girls’ father, a newspaper man who writes headlines in the New York Sun, a job of which his daughters are incredibly proud, seems to fall apart after the divorce, turning to drink and telling his daughters he is “only a copy desk man” and not especially talented. Sarah’s husband, Tony, initially handsome and charming, turns out to be uncouth and abusive. And pretty much every man that Emily ends up with — and there are a lot of them — lacks any kind of self-esteem. But neither sister ever comes to the realisation that they deserve better.

That lack of self-awareness may be due to the girls’ mother, the slightly eccentric and over-the-top Pookie, who seems to emasculate anyone, male or female, who comes within 15 feet of her orbit. In fact, Emily finds her so demanding that entire years go by in which Emily avoids her mother completely. Even when Pookie is in an old folks home, Emily feels no guilt in not making the effort to visit her.

The Easter Parade is a sad tale, but it’s incredibly easy to read, and the pace is ferocious because Yates doesn’t bother with unnecessary detail — he’ll often miss out entire years by using phrases such as “two years later” or “for a few years” — but it doesn’t come at the expense of characterisation or plot. I found this book the perfect antidote to “reader’s block” and ate it up in a weekend.

My only quibble, and it’s a very small one, is that The Easter Parade is largely told through the eyes of Emily, so you never really get to understand Sarah’s motivations and why she makes the choices she makes. The best you can do is to simply guess.

Finally, many thanks to regular reader Jeniwren, from Oz, who sent me this book a couple of years ago; it only made its way to the top of my TBR a couple of weeks ago! I’ve now gone out and bought some of his other novels. I expect a Richard Yates’ binge coming on very soon.