If there were an NCAA style tournament for the title of “Most Depressing Author”, my money would be on Richard Yates. You’d probably get great odds considering how under appreciated he is. To his credit he’s not writing about world hunger, two teens with rare life ending diseases, or the death of a pet. His novels tend to deal with what most people would consider their aspirations. Getting married and having a family. Owning a house in the perfect neighborhood. Making good money at a job you spent a good portion of your life going to school for. These are goals for most people. Yates takes those goals and molds them into the bleakest periods of his characters life. His books are not for the happy go lucky. But god dammit is it good writing.
Sarah and Emily are sisters from a splintered family. Their parents divorced while they were in grade school. From the start you know it’s going to have lasting effects into their adulthood. Sarah would grow up marrying the first person she has sex with. while Emily goes through men like I went through tissues in high school (disgusting, I know).
The story is told through Emily’s point of view, with periodic updates into the lives of her mother (named “Pookie”) and sister. Pookie is never the same after her divorce. Over the course of the book she goes from depressed single mom to delirious grandmother. Sarah seemingly has the perfect life. A successful husband. Three healthy boys. A house with the white picket fence that every girl yearns for. But it’s not long before those proud talking points at parties wear off. Her husband beats her throughout their thirty year marriage, two of her sons show her no respect at all, and she doesn’t ever leave that “perfect” house of hers. It’s more of a prison when you think about it. Not to mention her failed writing career and the slow depreciation of her body.
Emily, in my opinion, had the right idea all along. She went to university for four years, sleeping around as she pleases. While her sister resides in the suburbs, Emily has the pleasure of living in the greatest city in the world. She’s looked upon favorably by her superiors at her job, in the world of advertising no less. Neither of the sisters were destined for a fulfilling life, though. As the years go by so do the men in Emily’s life. Each one predictably leaves her, whether after a year, or ten. And as much as she wants to be a strong, independent woman, the thought of being alone terrifies her. That sweet apartment in the city eventually becomes a home for her sorrows and the older she gets the more expendable she becomes in the workplace.
Yates seems to have a simple message. Alone or together, life is one depressing marathon. The pursuit of happiness is a worthless endeavor. I can’t imagine any optimist ever enjoying this novel, or any of Yates work for that matter. Whether you’re a cynic or a believer there’s no denying the man has talent. Call me pessimistic, but I don’t think we’ll ever have another author like Richard Yates.