The shortest way for me to describe this book is that it’s the spiritual predecessor to We Need to Talk About Kevin. Where that book asks, “Why do we even have children?” this one asks, “Why do we ever abandon our dreams of glamorous, cultured inner-city lifestyles, move to the suburbs and then have children?” Of course part of the answer for this book is that abortions are more condemned and harder to access in 1950s America than they are today, but still, you know.
So this is the story of April and Frank Wheeler, who were happily sharing a cultured if impoverished life in New York City when, against all their plans, April fell pregnant. She wanted to abort it, but Frank didn’t – not because he actually wanted a child, mind you, but because he felt it was an affront to his masculinity for a woman to not want to bear his child. So they move to the suburbs into a dull, mind-numbing existence – she as a housewife, he with an unimaginably boring office job in the city – and years later, with their marriage dysfunctional as hell, they decide to move to Paris, as they’d dreamed so long ago.
The plot as it unfolds from there is not exactly unpredictable, but it’s compelling and tragic (an easier read than We Need to Talk About Kevin). It’s a condemnation of the nuclear family, of the way the pursuit of this ideal demands conformity and abandonment of one’s dreams. Of course it takes the madman, John Givings, to voice all of this and point out to people what they’re doing, even as his mother tries to shut him up – not particularly subtle, this book, but great all the same.