The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. (1976) French title: Easter Parade. 

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

If you had any hope to have Richard Yates cheer you up with his Easter Parade, he crushes it with the first sentence of his novel. The said Grimes sisters are Sarah and Emily. After they parents got divorced, they went to live with their mother Esther and only met their father on weekends. The Easter Parade feels like a long-term documentary about the destiny of two sisters raised by parents who failed them.

Their father is a ghost figure working in a small position at a newspaper, a job he puffs up in order to look better in the eyes of his daughters. Their mother doesn’t do motherly and thinks she belongs to a better social class that the one she belongs to.

Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called “flair.”

Her nickname gives her away. She yearns for style and class but doesn’t have it. This means that the girls are raised by a delusional woman who has a deceptive idea of their place in the world. Pookie lives in a world where fish need bicycles; in other words, her daughters need to get married. She pushes them in this direction, as would have done any other mother of that time.

It’s exactly what Sarah does, marrying a dashing young neighbor and settling into an unhappy marriage. We’ll follow her grim life over the decades, mostly through Emily’s eyes. Yates pays more attention to Emily. She’s brilliant enough to get into Barnard College on a scholarship. She doesn’t settle down with a man, working in an office in Manhattan and going from one failed liaison to the other.

As mentioned before, neither of them finds happiness.

This is where writing a billet months after reading a book becomes handy. A couple of months after The Easter Parade, I read I, For Isobel by Amy Witting.

And it struck me that Emily and Isobel’s stories have lots in common. Both have been raised by a mother who first wore the trousers in their marriage and then had to raise their children on their own. Both Isobel and Emily have a sister they love but have no affinity with. They work in an office and on their own in the city. They love to read and have intellectual abilities that single them out in their families.

One distressing thing Emily learned in college was to feel more intelligent than her sister. She had felt more intelligent than her mother for years, but that was different; when it happened with Sarah she felt she had betrayed a trust.

I think Isobel felt more intelligent than her mother and sister as well and that her mother knew it. It fueled her resentment towards her daughter. Pookie just knew she didn’t understand Emily. Isobel and Emily are bright and they have an intelligence that doesn’t agree well with the average fate of women in their social class. They cannot be satisfied with what’s ahead of them.

Isobel and Emily aren’t interested in a career as a housewife. They’re not ready to get married, raise kids and be their husband’s sidekick. They have this intellectual side, this interest in books that opened the doors to another world, a world of knowledge. It’s what happens to Isobel when she meets a group of students at a café and this is how Emily feels at Barnard:

School was the center of her life. She had never heard the word “intellectual” used as a noun before she went to Barnard, and she took it to heart. It was a brave noun, a proud noun, a noun suggesting lifelong dedication to lofty things and a cool disdain for the commonplace. An intellectual might lose her virginity to a soldier in the park, but she could learn to look back on it with wry, amused detachment.

They have higher expectations than their sisters because their intelligence tells them that there’s more to life than being a wife and a mother. And in their time and in their social class, it was usually impossible to have a career, be married and have children. And as a consequence, they have to choose and their choice is their freedom and they’re like fish out of water in their social class.

The most striking difference between the two stories is the ending. There’s hope for Isobel but not for Sarah. I, For Isobel was written by a woman who started to write later in life and there’s probably a lot of her personal experience in Isobel. She’s gentle with her character.

I disliked how Yates ended The Easter Parade for Emily, for me it was a letdown. And I couldn’t help wondering if being a man made him write such an ending. It felt like a cliché to warn women who dare to go out of the traditional way. ‘See what happens when you try to live like a man’.

If you’ve read The Easter Parade, how did you feel about it and the ending in particular?

There are a lot of things to explore in this short novel. It questions happiness, how to recognize it, how fleeting it is, like a parade. It also tells us how parents influence their children with their behavior, their vision of life. Sarah and Emily had flawed parents who were unhappy with their life, for different reasons. Even if it’s true because our parents shape us, we are not doomed to replay the same mistakes than our parents or be unhappy because of bad wiring in our childhood. I am more optimistic than that or maybe I want to be because I don’t want to think of the unintentional baggage I’m loading my children with.

My billet is long enough, I won’t spend too much time on raving about Yates’s style. It’s terrific, exactly the kind of writing I love. With a few strokes of his brush, you can see a character, like here: His wife Edna was pleasant and plump and drank a good deal of sherry. It’s also very visual and I couldn’t help thinking about Edward Hopper’s paintings when I read this description:

So they went to the main house without her. It was built of white clapboard too, and it was long and ugly—three stories high in some places and two in others, with black-roofed gables jutting into the trees. The first thing that hit you when you went inside was the smell of mildew. It seeped from the brown oil paintings in the vestibule, from the creaking floor and carpets and walls and gaunt furniture of the long, dark living room.

The bittersweet tone of the book, the clever picture of an era through the lives of two sisters all wrapped in a precise literary style make of The Easter Parade a highly recommended book.

For another vision of The Easter Parade, see Jacqui’s review here and Max’s review here.

PS: Once again, I’ll call a book cover a disaster. It’s more Angela’s Ashes than The Easter Parade.

  1. October 7, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    I can’t actually remember the ending of this novel (I read it eight years ago) but I do remember the melancholic mood and the beautiful writing. I’m going to have to read I is for Isobel now, aren’t I?

    Like

    • October 7, 2018 at 12:59 pm

      Spoiler:
      Emily becomes depressed and crazy. Like in a 19thc novel…

      And yes to I, For Isobel.
      I should read the sequel, Guy has urged me to and I trust him.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. October 7, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    Really interesting review Emma. I think Yates is a brilliant writer. I’ve not read Eater Parade but it’s in the TBR, I’ll remember to look at I for Isobel too once I’ve read it.

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    • October 7, 2018 at 5:53 pm

      It’s a great book, you’ll probably like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. October 7, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    You are so right about the cover!!! And yes, Hopper is the perfect visual representation of Yates- the ennui, the loneliness, the coldness of others.

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    • October 7, 2018 at 5:56 pm

      This cover is really awful. I often find covers of English-speaking editions terrible but I’m not their targeted market, aren’t I?

      His writing, the characters, the descriptions really reminded me of Hopper’s paintings. It’s the same years and the melancholy, the loneliness are alike.

      Like

  4. October 7, 2018 at 4:59 pm

    I have this one yet to read. It sounds depressing, but I’ll read it at some point. Probbaly along with something more optimistic.

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    • October 7, 2018 at 5:57 pm

      Sorry if I gave you the impression that it’s depressing because it’s not. It’s sad, full of melancholy but not depressing.

      Like

  5. October 7, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    Many thanks for linking to my review, Emma – much appreciated. Luckily my copy has a different cover to yours, a very Mad-Men style picture of two women looking very happy – an image that certainly fits the period if not the novel’s mood.

    As you say, the opening sentence sets the tone from the word go. (Yates is great when it comes to openings – it’s something I’ve noticed in his short stories as well as the novels.) I don’t recall having any particular reservations about the ending for Emily, but maybe I didn’t think about it too much at the time. Yates’ characters rarely end up in a good place, so it felt somewhat inevitable in a way.

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    • October 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm

      It’s the only Yates I read, you know this writer better than me. I’d like to read other books by him, I loved his writing.
      *spoilers*
      It’s not the fact that Emily’s life doesn’t end well that bothers me. What bothers me is that she becomes mentally ill. I thought it was too much and I’m not sure a male character would have ended that way.

      Like

  6. October 7, 2018 at 8:39 pm

    I read Yates quite a while ago and didn’t warm to him, although I don’t recall specifically why. Maybe it’s the man writer thing you highlight…. 😉

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    • October 7, 2018 at 9:04 pm

      Who knows?
      I still think he’s an excellent writer: exquisite style, well-crafted characters even if they’re cold and quite lonely.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Jonathan
    October 8, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    I read this a couple of years ago and it immediately became a favourite of mine—my review is here if you’re interested—and although it was grim in places I felt that there was some hope at the end; Emily wasn’t totally beaten and with some help from her nephew I could imagine her getting back on her own two feet again. I think it’s wrong with an author like Yates to take his characters as ‘types’ or to assume he’s somehow warning women from living a certain way—I don’t think Yates is that kind of author.

    I haven’t read any more Yates since EP but I have a copy of Eleven Kinds of Loneliness which I keep picking up with the intention of reading—I love the title of that one and the covers of the Vintage versions are great also.

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    • Jonathan
      October 8, 2018 at 9:30 pm

      eek! formatting error. I meant (cross fingers and hope I’ve got it right this time):

      I read this a couple of years ago and it immediately became a favourite of mine—my review is here if you’re interested—and although it was grim in places I felt that there was some hope at the end; Emily wasn’t totally beaten and with some help from her nephew I could imagine her getting back on her own two feet again. I think it’s wrong with an author like Yates to take his characters as ‘types’ or to assume he’s somehow warning women from living a certain way—I don’t think Yates is that kind of author.

      I haven’t read any more Yates since EP but I have a copy of Eleven Kinds of Loneliness which I keep picking up with the intention of reading—I love the title of that one and the covers of the Vintage versions are great also.

      Like

      • October 16, 2018 at 8:48 pm

        Sorry for the very very slow answer, I’ve been buried at work and the weekend was busy too.

        I was left thinking there wasn’t much hope for Emily.

        I don’t think that it was Yates’ intention to create a type with Emily. That’s how I felt when I read the book, I was disappointed by what became of Emily.

        I’ve read Jacqui’s review of Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and that’s one I’d like to read too. His prose is exemplary.

        Like

      • October 16, 2018 at 9:09 pm

        Sorry Jonathan but the link doesn’t work.

        Like

  8. October 8, 2018 at 11:04 pm

    I certainly (repeatedly!) share your reservations about men writing from a woman’s pov. I don’t think it was ever impossible for women to be independent, just extremely difficult. We’ve always had “spinsters” and they are always derided precisely because they threaten men’s control. I was going to say I can only name Australian examples, Catherine Helen Spence is my favourite, but look at the life and writing of George Sand for instance.

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    • October 16, 2018 at 8:51 pm

      Sorry I didn’t answer sooner, work and family life caught up with me and ate at my blogging time.

      Here, I liked what Emily was trying to do, how she was her own person and didn’t settle down according to what was expected of her. That’s why I was so disappointed by the ending.

      And yes, single women in literature are often clichés…

      Like

  9. October 10, 2018 at 10:40 am

    That cover really is criminal.

    I agree with Jonathan on the ending. I don’t think Yates means to write types as such, he writes characters almost all of whom seem to have rather disappointing lives. His male protagonists from what I’ve read so far do no better.

    In a sense I think the book is showing the limitations on the choices offered these women. They take two different paths, neither of which really works out. I think that’s intended more as a criticism of the society they’re part of and the choices they’re given than the choices they make.

    Yates’ style is extraordinary.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on Revolutionary Road, though I’d caution that it’s much bleaker as I recall than Easter Parade…

    Like

    • October 16, 2018 at 9:06 pm

      Sorry sorry for the late answer, my blogging time was eaten by work and family life.

      I don’t think Yates intented to create a type. And yes, men are not happier or better in this book.
      I have no problem with Emily not finding happiness , I have a problem with the meltdown and the pitiful ending which is a cliché ending for women characters. (You know, they end up crazy or in a convent or die of depression…)

      I’m not sure a male character would have ended like Emily.

      The only hope is that her nephew (a man) takes care of her…

      The book certainly shows how narrow women’s lives were at the time. I was fine with Emily not having a husband and kids because it rings true. In that time, it was hard to have both. (It’s still is in some Western countries)

      And yes, his style is extraordinary

      Like

  10. October 17, 2018 at 7:21 pm

    Yates is on my TBR list too, although I was planning to start with Revolutionary Road. I find the covers I’ve seen for that one irksome too, mostly because they are a still from the movie. I’ll keep your review and your recommendation of I for Isobel tucked in a corner of my mind for when I get round to reading Yates.

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