Reading Matter

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)

and

There’s a palpable sense of disappointment underscored by fear in this marriage, which is almost frightening…(Revolutionary Road)

Hmm.

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?

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7 thoughts on “Reading Matter

  1. 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?

    Oh, absolutely! And your assessment of Yates’s Revolutionary Road is spot on: marvellous writing, dispiriting story. If I were you, I’d be off to find something by Laurie Colwin… or maybe a collection of Calvin & Hobbes cartoons! Let us know what you find — I could use something more frivolous as well.

  2. I definitely reach for something familiar and beloved and light when going through a hard time – that’s why I’ve reread the Anne of Green Gables series and the Mitford series more than once.

    I finished listening to Goldengrove on audiobook the day before yesterday. I liked it, but found it a little slow – and yes, depressing. I liked Reading Like a Writer a hundred times more.

  3. Anno: Oddly enough, I did pick up Laurie Colwin – a novel I hadn’t read called A Big Storm Knocked it Over (appropriate for our weather today, at any rate!)

    Carrie: Anne and Father Tim are two of my favorites – I should go search out my collection of both 🙂

  4. “mired in sorrow and defeat,” yet the writing is stellar — absolutely true about *Revolutionary Road*. I would like to re-read it at some point and get away from the -story- to concentrate on the -writing-.

    I haven’t read *Goldengrove*, but after reading your review I know I’ll wait until the doldrums of winter are over before I think about picking it up.

  5. I would take the exact, opposite track. If I feel sad and dreary, I find something to take me away from my reality, and something that is either spirit lifting, or funny, or mysterious. This two books sound altogether too sad for the dark days of winter.
    I am going to the library this afternoon, to pick out my reading for the next two weeks of freedom. I don’t have my list set up yet, but it will surely include light mysteries set in either Africa or Iceland, or both!

  6. There it is—the answer I’ve been searching for: Why was Goldengrove not published as YA. The pervasive sense of despair, you write. And I trust you implicitly. Thank you.

    I am reading something entrancing, enchanting, not hard, good, and that is what I need right now: Reading, along with the rest of the wordl, the Guersney Literary Society. I’ve been quiet and somewhat blue. This book emanates warmth. I’m not sure I could do Revolutionary Road just now.

  7. Revolutionary Road is a phenomenal book, but it’s definitely not something to read when you’re feeling blue! I read it a few years ago for a modern American history course I was taking, then analyzed it according to its views on the “American dream” Yates describes and our own perspective on that dream — and maybe how it’s changed. Pretty interesting.

    And yes, my choice of reading material is usually pretty linked to my mood. If I’ve recently read something darker and more literary than fun, I usually grab a nice young adult or chick lit novel to get out of that pit of overthinking! 🙂

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