Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade (1976) is a great book by a great writer; on this many agree. Having just read it, I’ll join the chorus. But the experience of reading Yates’s novel was both unsettling and a bit mysterious for me, and as I tried to formulate for myself what the book is, and how it is what it is, I found myself reading the back-cover copy – something I often like to do after finishing a book rather than before, to see how publishers articulate a book’s raison d’etre relative to my own reading experience.
Having myself gone through the process of boiling down a novel to three-and-five-sentence summaries for various purposes, I do recognize that crackle-and-pop and heartstrings will sometimes trump accuracy in crafting these summaries. But in the case of The Easter Parade, these blurby declarations struck me as so off-pitch, that they in fact helped me to clarify for myself just what I think The Easter Parade is, and isn’t.
From the Picador paperback:
“Children of divorced parents, sisters Sarah and Emily Grimes are observed over four decades and grow into two very different women [...] Yates’s acclaimed novel is about how both women struggle to overcome their tarnished past, and how both finally reach for some semblance of renewal.”
There are a number of things about this description that bother me.
1. “Children of divorced parents…”
As the introductory clause of the introductory sentence, this phrase implies cause and effect; implies the primacy of their parents’ divorce in determining who Sarah and Emily are, what happens to them, and who they become. But one of the masterful tricks of The Easter Parade is the way in which Yates starts the novel –
“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce”
– then proceeds to tell a story that is anything but the story of children fated by something as singular and abstract as “divorce.” That their restless mother asks them to call her “Pookie” and is obsessed with “flair” and moves them to a new town every year, that their father was a failed writer, unambitious, and died young, that they are coming of age at a time when female independence is exhilaratingly new and frighteningly untested – these are perhaps more accurate starting points for the Grimes sisters’ unhappy fates; and yet still neither do they comprise, in Yates’s novelistic vision, a reductive cause-and-effect universe.
There are many ways in which The Easter Parade could lapse into cautionary tale – divorce screws up your children; don’t drink too much; don’t marry when you’re young; don’t stay single too long; beware of tortured poets and men who obsess over their ex-wives – but Yates is a storyteller, not a moralist, in classic “show don’t tell” style. That bold first line demonstrates his great talent for the roving point-of-view, that is, opening and closing the distance between narration and characters. Who is “looking back”? “Always seemed” to whom? Never in the novel do Sarah and Emily themselves “look back” and say, or think, “it all started with that darned divorce.” (More accurately, the characters and the reader might say that it all started with the Grimes’s doomed marriage – a much more complicated truth for children who realize that they exist only as a result of that doomed marriage). Yates begins the novel with a kind of anonymous, village-chorus narration. For the rest of the novel, as he moves in closer to his characters, we see the difference between the simplicity of distanced, static perception – “it always seemed” – and the complexity of direct experience over time.
2. “[S]isters Sarah and Emily Grimes are observed over four decades…”
This gives an impression of a narratively symmetrical story about two sisters on diverging paths. In fact, The Easter Parade is Emily’s story. When the narration zooms in, it gives us Emily’s point-of-view; we are privy to her thoughts primarily. Sarah’s life is seen by the reader through Emily’s life, and in comparison to it. In other words, Yates’s subject is in part this radically new world for (unmarried) women; thus it is Emily’s experiences and vantage point that he gives us in detail.
At the same time “observed” is an interesting way of describing the novel’s style. Excerpts from reviews (also from the back cover) that capture this style well include “spare yet wrenching” (New York Times) “astonishing sweep and weight” (Stewart O’Nan), “force and simplicity” (SF Sunday Examiner & Chronicle). That their lives are “observed” speaks to the novel’s pacing – the way Yates “sweeps” over the characters’ lives, and the passage of time, in brush strokes that are somehow both broad and intricate, light and dark. And even as The Easter Parade is largely Emily’s story, Yates often narrates her experiences as a close, over-the-shoulder observer rather than from within her mind or emotions, and at a brisk pace. In high-tension scenes where another author might delve into interiority, Yates opts for unembellished dialogue:
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, Emily, I love you.”
“No, no; don’t say that.”
“But it’s true; I have to say it. I love you.”
He lay mouthing and sucking one of her nipples for a long while, stroking her with his hands, then his mouth went to the other one. After a long time he rolled partly away from her and said “Emily?”
“I’m sorry, it’s – I can’t. This happens to me sometimes. I can’t.”
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am; it’s just one of those – Does it make you hate me?”
“No, of course not, Andrew.”
With a great deflating sigh he heaved himself up and sat on the edge of the bed, and he looked so dejected that she put her arms around him from behind.
“Good,” he said. “That’s nice. I like to have you hold me that way. And it’s true; I do love you. You’re delightful. You’re sweet and healthy and kind and I love you. It’s just that I can’t seem to – demonstrate it tonight.”
“Sh-sh. It’s all right.”
“Tell me the truth. Has this ever happened to you before? Has a man ever failed you this way before?”
“You’d say that even if it wasn’t true. Ah, God, you’re a nice girl. Listen, though, Emily: it’s a thing that only happens to me sometimes. Do you believe that?”
Emily has several love affairs throughout the novel; each one features a few scenes like this, in which Emily’s speech and actions are minimal, her thoughts barely expressed. And yet the weight and depth of sadness are unmistakable – even more so as she grows older and we become familiar with the patterns Yates establishes for her affairs: like Tolstoy’s families, each one of them unhappy after its own fashion.
3. “… how both women struggle to overcome their tarnished past, and how both finally reach for some semblance of renewal.”
This is perhaps the most egregious part of the summary, the part that smacks most obviously (and comically) of advertising-speak. For the Grimes sisters, it is not so much their past that is tarnished or that needs to be overcome, but rather their present; and in Emily’s case – as the only surviving Grimes by the novel’s end – her future. Tao Lin has brought to our attention that the novel’s title refers to an event that occurs in the beginning, when Sarah and Emily are young, when Sarah and her soon-to-be husband Tony are beautiful and perfect and in love; when their lives are in fact as yet untarnished, by alcohol, brutality, unrealized ambitions.
As for “reaching for renewal,” this phrase feels especially cheap. The Easter Parade is a book that you fly through on wings, at Yates’s swift, fluid pace, with a sense of barely skimming the surfaces; often you feel something like the “ease” of reading that is associated with chick lit, that flitty propulsion that keeps one turning the pages (I read The Easter Parade in two afternoons). But all the way through, and with greater force once you’ve closed the book, you feel a relentless, penetrating sadness breaching those surfaces. This is not a book about renewal, but about hard reality – “shown” unflinchingly, not “told” with commentary, and decidedly not reaching for much more than a recounting of lives just as they are.
In the end, Sarah dies an ugly, unredeeming death, shrouded in the possibility of domestic violence as its cause. Pookie dies alone in a state institution, out of her mind, as far from realizing her dreams of “flair” and sophistication as one could imagine. Walter Grimes is long dead, having lived an unremarkable “workaday” life, failing to either finish college or advance past ”only a copy-desk man.” Emily finds herself bitter, vulnerable, utterly alone, verging on madness, as she nears the age of 50. “I’ve never understood anything in my whole life,” she says to her nephew, a kindly and seemingly well-adjusted Episcopalian priest, after hurling a heap of irrational accusations at him.
Is Emily’s admission in the last lines of the book a “reaching for some semblance of renewal”? Perhaps. To me it reads more like a resignation, or a surrender. I see Emily ceasing to fight, or strive, or to find meaning or cause in things. I see her accepting her nephew’s kindness, but not his religion nor his vocabulary of spiritual hope. I see her living not much longer, passing from this world with only one certainty, which is her lack of understanding.
And yet strangely, somewhat magically, for all its non-overcoming, non-reaching bleakness, The Easter Parade leaves me with that feeling of flight, of lightness – doubtless Yates’s intention in choosing his title. For it is the very feeling that I imagine Emily will suddenly have, and just as quickly lose, when she opens her nephew’s old copy of the NY Times, the one that features a photo of young Sarah and Tony at the Easter Parade, all those years ago, “smiling at each other like the very soul of romance in the April sunshine.”