The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates

For harried book lovers in search of their next great read, I have a simple word of advice. Read Yates. He’s an extraordinarily gifted writer. Set in New Jersey and New York in the 1930s through the 1970s, The Easter Parade is a tightly woven chronicle of loneliness and despair. From the opening lines of the novel, we learn that “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life…” After their parents divorce, Sarah, the more conventional of the two, marries Tony, a man “as handsome as Laurence Olivier.” They move to the suburbs and have a child a year for three years. They’re unhappy. Tony beats Sarah bloody “once or twice a month for about … 20 years.” Emily, on the other hand, marries only briefly and has no children. She goes to Barnard College and has a number of casual hookups — she loses her virginity to a soldier in Central Park under a rustling tree — and she has some serious long-term relationships as well, one with a bi-sexual seaman who leaves her for another man, another with an impotent philosophy professor, one with a struggling poet past his prime, and lastly one with married man still in love with his estranged wife. The great tragedy of Emily’s life is that she’s not understood by anyone. She’s unappreciated, unknown, unloved. Emily gradually discovers that she’s in a condition of “hopeless and terrible need.” Like her mother at the state hospital, Emily retreats into the safety of memories and fantasies. She emerges only occasionally at the kind words of strangers or, unforgettably, in the closing scene of the novel, when she confronts her beloved nephew about the well-grounded suspicion that her sister Sarah was killed by her husband Tony in a drunken rage. In a story where characters are deeply flawed, it’s only fitting that Emily should exhaust her last reserves in an effort to pry the truth from a nephew whose greatest flaw is his supreme (and serene) self-assurance. Against his confidence and placidity, she has no hope. The past is buried, the opportunity for genuine contact is lost. “I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life,” she says, tired and spent. A graying ember.

11 Responses to The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates

  1. Ellen Rhudy says:

    All I’ve read by Yates is (predictably) Revolutionary Road. I appreciate the reminder that he’s written other things, adding this to my list.

  2. Trevor says:

    When I started my blog, one of the first books I read was Revolutionary Road. I quickly moved on to his short story collection and had the goal to read all he wrote. Sadly, in nearly three years, I still haven’t gotten another of his books! Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Richard says:

    Not having read Yates yet, Kevin, what intrigues me most from your description(s) of him is that he seems to walk a tightrope between soap opera-y domestic drama (something with very little appeal to me) and the emotionally harrowing. I trust your take on his gifts as a writer, but how close to the mark am I in terms of the general description of his material?

  4. It’s not soap opera-y at all, at least not any more so than, say, Proust, who, even though his style and treatment is remarkably different, situates so many of his dramatic scenes in bedrooms, drawing rooms, and walking paths. Not soap opera-y at all. But unlike Proust, Yate is a lot less sanguine about the possibilty of recovering whatever nameless lost thing that haunts us. Loss, temorary recovery (or illusion of recovery), then loss again, and again – that’s Yates. Loss without any real insight, at least for his characters. Hopefully readers benefit from their tragedy. Hopefully. But I have my doubts. Cheers, Kevin

    • Richard says:

      Thanks for clearing that up for me, Kevin. Ironically, I had never really thought of Proust as soap opera-y because he’s just so profound…but he is kind of soap opera-y, what can I say? Still love the reclusive French mofo, though!

  5. Anthony says:

    Thanks for the prompting to read Yates, he is in my sights. There’s a feeling of Bellow, the quiet tragedy of ordinary lives.

  6. Warren says:

    yates! yates! did you read the short stories yet? and after those, check out “a good school” by him. damn i wish i was reading him for the first time, all over again.

  7. Warren! Is this the book-loving, backpacking Warren? I hope so. I did finish his short stories. Loved them! Cheers, Kevin

  8. Lulu says:

    Great post!!! I have been a Yates lover since around 2000, and have a crazy looking assortment of old books of his. He liked the Easter Parade best out of his own works. Blake Baily wrote a great biography a few years back while the novels and short stories were being reissued.

  9. nicole says:

    I had just barely heard of Yates, and then after the movie version of “Revolutionary Road” came out, he was everywhere—even among people I know had absolutely no interest in film versions of such things. I’m about 99% sure he’d be right up my alley, but for some reason I’ve just never made a move toward any of his works. Lord knows how I could resist “a tightly woven chronicle of loneliness and despair”!

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