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Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

First published to great acclaim in 1961, Revolutionary Road is currently enjoying a revival among readers and critics. (A movie version starring Titanic megastars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio hasn't hurt either). It's a good thing too - this is an extraordinary work, a deft and devastating portrait of life in the suburbs.

Frank and April Wheeler are a handsome and talented couple. Great things were always predicted for Frank and he 'hardly ever entertained a doubt of his own exceptional merit.' April is a 'first-rate' girl who dreamed of being an actress. They married, had two children and are now enduring a stultifying stint in the suburbs by pretending that they're not as dull as their neighbours.

To prove it, April plans a move to Paris 'for ever', where she'll work and Frank can 'find himself' - possibly something in the arts.  Initially enthusiastic, Frank secretly starts to worry that she will come home from a day at the office 'wearing a Parisian tailored suit, briskly pulling off her gloves - coming home and finding him hunched in an egg-stained bathrobe picking his nose.' Eventually, their plan unravels and, disappointed and resentful, they take turns to wound, humiliate and punish each other.

Yates writes in a third-person narrative, which slips in and out of Frank's, and occasionally other characters', thoughts and idioms. Part of what makes this novel so good is that we see what characters wanted to say; what they actually said; and them kicking themselves afterwards.

The story is tragic, but Yates never slips into melodrama and an underlying dark humour stops the tale from becoming too depressing. The book is cleverly paced and the secondary characters are pitch-perfect - people we've all meet and scoffed at before.

Occasionally, however, the novels 50s' setting - with its simpering housewives and aferwork cocktails - grates.  For example, when April is trying to convince Frank to move to Paris, she gives this reason: "Don't you know? You're the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world. You're a man". And, tellingly, Frank's elated, rather than suspicious of her statement.

Rating: 9/10

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Random House
RRP: $26.99
Available: Now from all good book stores

Click here to read Darren Bevan's movie review of Revolutionary Road