Having recently posted about gifting books and traveling with books and making time for books, I realize I haven’t posted about actually reading any books. So what have I been reading lately?
I finished Revolutionary Road (by Richard Yates) today, hot on the heels of Goldengrove (by Francine Prose), and it occurred to me that my choice of reading matter was doing little to lift my slumping spirits. For if ever two books seemed mired in sorrow and defeat, it’s these two. Why, just look at the first sentence I wrote in my Moleskine notebook about each of these novels ~
There’s a pervasive sense of defeat throughout this novel, which makes the book almost painful to read…(Goldengrove)
There’s a palpable sense of disappointment underscored by fear in this marriage, which is almost frightening…(Revolutionary Road)
Both books are stories of families under stress – Goldengrove centers around 13 year old Nico, her parents, and their reaction to the drowning death of Nico’s vivacious older sister. Goldengrove could almost be a young adult book – I can see myself devouring this story when I was an angst ridden 15 year old. Nico is poised on the cusp of adulthood, and her experience of grief and guilt propels her forward at a breakneck pace. But the sense of despair is very adult oriented, the stages this family passes through in their “fever dream” of grief very emotionally wrenching.
Revolutionary Road (which is about to hit the wide screen with Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the Wheelers) takes us backstage in the lives of Frank and April Wheeler, a typically upwardly mobile young suburban couple of the mid-1950’s. But there is darkness here as well, as these two come to the realization that neither they, nor their lives are quite as special as they planned them to be. And so they hatch a plan – to ditch their little corner of the American dream and move to France, start all over as glamorous ex-pats and leave the “hopeless emptiness of everything in this country.” Then April becomes unexpectedly pregnant with their third child, and Frank realizes that he actually doesn’t have the chops to give it all up and live the European lifestyle after all. And so they’re left to face the inevitability of their existence.
The writing in both of these novels is stellar. Yates’ writing style is restrained and elegant, yet he surprises the reader with impressive insight and sympathy for his characters ~ not just the Wheeler’s, but the ancillary characters as well. This passage, for instance, from the mind of Helen Givings, Realtor and busybody extraordinaire:
She cried because she’d had such high, high hopes about the Wheelers tonight, and now she was terribly, terribly disappointed. She cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her only child was insane.
But like most of us, Helen puts on the good face..”all she had to do was go into the bathroom and blow her nose and wash her face and brush her hair. Then, refreshed, she walked jauntily and soundlessly downstairs in her slipper socks and returned to sit in the ladder-back rocker across from her husband…”
Prose, too, is a master of language. As she wrote in her non-fiction book, Reading Like A Writer, “language is the medium the writer uses in much the same way a composer uses notes, a painter uses paint.” Goldengrove is rife with painterly expressions ~ perhaps overmuch, for sometimes it seems as if Prose is flexing her writing muscle more for show than for purpose. (Or perhaps, I’m just jealous of her ability to turn a phrase *smiles*)
Reflecting on these two novels, I find myself wondering why I was drawn to these tales of despair and hopelessness. Was it an unconscious need to reinforce my own feelings of dissatisfaction about life in general, my feeling that life was “too much with me” and impossible to escape? And it begs the question…are we drawn to reading books that mirror our psychological state, rather than ones that could help us improve upon it?
At any rate, I find myself a little bit sickened by all the sorrow in these novels. And I’m ready to move past it and into something more light hearted and optimistic. And perhaps with this revelation, I’ve answered my own question. Books, like life, reflect all sorts of emotional states and ideas. As readers, we much choose wisely, as one would chose a physician or remedy.
Reading matters, that’s sure.
Now tell me, do you ever find that your choice of books is related to your emotional state? Does reading effect your outlook on life in general?