Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1961. Paperback available at Chapters/Indigo, $19.27, here.
Great literature is always relevant. The oldest known fictional story, created 4,700 years ago, is an adventure-filled mythic poem centred on a king, Glilgamesh, who goes on a classic hero’s journey. It's worthy of any bestsellers list. As long as it’s a good, there will always be readers, no matter a story’s age or origins.
We are story-loving creatures. Long before there were computers that allowed a writer to spell-check a whole manuscript in minutes, there were cave dwellers recording their lives on cave walls. People told stories around the hearths, handing down stories from generation to generation. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians carved their stories into their buildings.
As time marched on, we developed better ways to write and circulate writing to the public. We still love the stories of the ancients and handed-down tales that are the basis of our modern fairy tales. The themes and characters of those stories engage the imagination just as easily today as they did thousands of years ago. The epic poems of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, still inspire readers and writers today, as do the works of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dickens, Twain, Austen, and Dostoyevsky, to name a few.
It doesn’t always follow that a classic story will appeal to every reader, but there’s a reason they became classic.
In this spirit, I read the Revolutionary Road by Robert Yates. First published in 1961, the novel was adapted into a two-thumbs up film in 2008, starring movie power couple Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie propelled the novel into renewed fame. I found it on Stephen King’s book list.
I hadn’t seen the movie, so I could approach the novel with no preconceived ideas other than the expectation of it being educational, entertaining and influential, as recommended by King.
A few pages into the book and I tossed it aside, doubting King’s taste. The primary characters, April and Frank Wheeler, were unsympathetic and immature. I continued reading only because I enjoyed Yate’s use of language. It sure wasn’t because of the characters. Further on into the book, it felt like a typical soap opera. Melodrama at its finest with love/hate relationships, arguments, unrequited love, sexual tension, extensive alcohol intake, an inmate from a mental hospital, adultery, and misunderstandings the average child could resolve.
Then it grew uncomfortable. Yates found my soft underbelly. I am no different from the characters in Revolutionary Road.
|Robert Yates in 1960|
In the novel, April Wheeler desires to escape her empty, hollow suburban life and reinvent her family by moving to Paris. While not as miserable as April, I too once felt as if I were running on a hamster wheel, everything the same and no expectation of change. It took a lot of courage and time, but unlike the Wheelers, I fulfilled my dream of reinvention. I quit my job and moved across the country to begin the next phase of my life.
With this realization, I discovered I had sympathy for the characters and could easily empathize with their misery. Most readers will commiserate with the Wheelers, just as we can understand Achilles’ anger and pride in The Iliad, the sorrow and guilt of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet or Robert Langdon’s search for the truth in The DaVinci Code.
I am inspired now to return to novels I read years ago and did not appreciate. It’s likely that I needed some maturity to understand those stories. I will continue on with suggested readings whether the recommended book this week’s #1 New York Times bestseller list or the 400-year-old Don Quixote. What drives humanity hasn’t changed in all the years we’ve been telling stories. A well-written book will always be worth reading.
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Jennifer Reichow knew as a child she was going to university and be a writer. As so often happens, life interrupted her plan. But now that she’s just retired from a fulfilling nursing career, she’s realizing her dream of becoming a writer. It feels like coming home.
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