It seems that ever since suburbia was born, people have been anxious to get out of it. The main characters of this novel (which is set in 1955, during the period of accelerating suburbanization) feel the same: Frank Wheeler, a young husband commuting from a small Connecticut town to his job in New York, and his wife, April, a dissatisfied woman playing mother and housewife with not a whole lot of talent feel out of place in their surroundings, and they are secretly convinced that they were destined for something grander than spending their lives on surreal green grass, among pastel-colored lovely little houses.
So once, when April comes up with the idea to leave everything behind and move to Paris, Frank – after a bit of grumbling – concedes. According to their plans, April will find a job and while she’s supporting the family, Frank will have time to finally figure out what’s his great talent and start working on realizing his potential. This is important, as one of the great common fictions/lies of the Wheelers is that Frank is in possession of a great special talent, and the only reason he couldn’t do anything with it is that their first child was born too early in their lives, so the ever so responsible Frank was forced to take a mind-numbingly boring job to be able to support his family. But then the Paris plans don’t work out the way the couple (or mainly April, who’s in the stage of “I must do something, right now, otherwise I’ll just rot here”) planned.
This is a horribly depressing novel. Not so much because of the individual events and turns (even though there are plenty of depressing events and turns here) but because it’s frightfully, disturbingly true. I know no other novel that depicts marriage games so authentically, and describes so ruthlessly the ways a couple can delude themselves and each other. The Wheelers do nothing else than play power games and fool each other. During their fights, Frank and April both know what to say to hurt the other in the most painful fashion; April knows just how to please Frank by playing the perfect housewife so that after a few hours of indulgence, when Frank already has his guards down, she can introduce her big ideas; and Frank can twist words so fantastically when he talks about his job and himself that he manages to paint a picture of himself as a confident, strong man, attractively contemptuous about his mindless job, because he feels this is how April wants to perceive him.
It’s simultaneously heart-wrenching and pitiful to see how Frank is constantly manufacturing explanations and excuses, and while he’s having a conversation with someone he already pictures how he’ll relate it to his wife in a way that flatters him. And the way he insists on having the final say in certain matters even if deep down he himself would like to agree with April is infuriating. The most prominent example of this is, of course, the question of having children – Frank convinces April to bear her unwanted child, during more than one pregnancies, even though he’d also be happier without children, only he can’t admit this due to a vague, mistaken feeling of needing to fulfill society’s expectations. (April plays similar games, by the way, only we don’t get so many precise details about her thoughts and about the way she plays her games.)
The most interesting aspect of this for me is that this isn’t a case of a relationship going sour over time. As it becomes clear from the reminiscences of the characters, their relationship was built on lies from the very first moment. For example, April only uttered the great compliment that’s still cherished by Frank (“you are the most interesting person I’ve ever met”) because she knew that’s what Frank wanted to hear. The question arises: is this a lie? Or is it simply a nice, harmless, weightless compliment, something new lovers always say to each other? I think it’s a lie, and an ugly, cynical and self-deluding one at that – as we also learn from the story, it isn’t such a great idea to build a relationship on delusion – neither for the one who’s doing the deluding, nor for the deluded.
But the novel isn’t only about April and Frank destroying each other and about their plan to change their lives (which inevitably goes astray) – it’s also about other people. About Mrs. Givings, the local real estate agent, who spends 12 hours a day brightly chatting about the wonderful weather, the amazing color of the grass, the greatness of suburbia, and the stunning view from the Wheelers’ living room – and then goes home, puts on her old clothes, and when she remains alone with herself for a minute, bursts into tears because she’s grown old and led a useless, meaningless life.
About the couple next door, the Campbells, who were not as promising as the Wheelers (but what do the Wheelers promise, anyway?), and who seem to be perfectly content, untouched by the desire for a more meaningful, more real life – and then it turns out that they are tormented by this desire, too, and that they are not necessarily dumber or more shallow than the Wheelers (at least the husband definitely isn’t).
About the single girl living in New York, who’s happy to have fleeting affairs with married men because she thinks that this is a must for a 20-year-old young woman living in the bustling city before getting married and moving to the suburbs to settle down – where she’ll spend her life fantasizing about the liveliness of her New York life, now gone.
And about Mrs. Givings’ mentally unstable son, John, who also started out a great promise, but failed to fulfill the expectations of others – but he’s equally unable to accept the hopeless emptiness of life in toy town.
And these stories of the minor characters serve to reinforce what’s obvious from the main story of the Wheelers: life in toy town, this simulacrum life suffocates and destroys everyone who thinks too much, and only those can live such a life peacefully who grow a plastic skin for themselves so that it’s not possible anymore to decide whether there’s still anything human, anything living under the skin (for example, I can’t decide whether Mrs. Givings still has anything human in her), or who voluntarily give up the dangerous habit of thinking in order to keep their sanity (for example, the Campbells – even though the husband still tends to think too much for his health).
All this is terrible and extremely disturbing, and after reading or watching this novel or a couple of other American works painting a dark picture of suburbia, probably no one has any desire for it. But the question remains: is life more real elsewhere?