When Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade came out in 1976, it was a Book of the Month Club selection, alongside Judith Guest’s Ordinary People. Yates—who’d achieved career-making acclaim with his first novel, Revolutionary Road, but less success with subsequent ones—was excited about his expanded readership. But he also called up his editor Sam Lawrence to express his worry that Delacorte planned to market the novel, which follows two sisters from the 1930s to the 1970s, as a “woman’s book.”
Yates was not the first or last male novelist (see also: Franzen) to worry that his work would be diminished by its association with women. Even today, women’s fiction remains a category in publishing—my own books are sometimes labeled that way—and I often wonder what it means. Is it a book that features women? Is it anything I write, because I’m a woman?
I was working on my new “woman’s book,” Dual Citizens, about two sisters and their complicated, life-long bond, when a friend suggested I read The Easter Parade. Like most people, the only Yates I’d read was Revolutionary Road. In the decades since his death in 1992, Revolutionary Road has kept Yates’s reputation alive; according to NPD BookScan, it has sold 483,000 copies in paperback since 2004, with over half of that coming after the release of the film version in 2008. The Easter Parade, by contrast, has sold just more than 10,000 copies in paperback since 2004.
It deserves more readers. I fell in love with it from the dark, once-upon-a-time cadence of its opening sentence: “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 this is a woman’s book, Yates is clear that it won’t be a light-hearted one. Emily and Sarah Grimes grow up with their alcoholic, self-deluding mother, Pookie, in a series of rental homes they can’t afford. Their father, who lives in New York City, is well-intentioned but distant, a copy-man at a newspaper who didn’t amount to much and knows it. The three women form an awkward triad, often struggling to find anything to talk about, yet forever implicated in each other’s lives.
Things look promising when Sarah meets a handsome, genteel neighbor, Tony Wilson. At the start of their courtship, he and Sarah dress up in their finest clothes, walk in the Easter Parade, and are photographed for the rotogravure section of the New York Times. But after this brief high point, the relationship goes precipitously downhill: Tony and Sarah have three children and descend into dysfunctional family life. They drink to excess; Sarah is isolated, her occasional attempts at writing going nowhere; Tony beats her.
Marriage is no happily-ever-after conclusion—it’s a prison that the prisoner has to pretend to enjoy. Little wonder that Emily mistrusts it. When Sarah tells Emily to marry one of her boyfriends, Emily snaps, “‘You’re always telling me to marry people, Sarah. You say that about every man I bring out here. Is marriage supposed to be the answer to everything?’ Sarah looked hurt. ‘It’s the answer to an awful lot of things.’”
They’re both wrong. Emily takes a different path from her sister; smart and studious, she attends Barnard, later working at magazines and in advertising. She has affairs with a number of men, most of them awful. (While I wouldn’t exactly call Yates a comic writer, Emily’s boyfriends star in a number of bleakly hilarious scenes.) Yates narrates Emily’s sexual experiences with frankness, her desire acknowledged without prudishness, and the issues that come along—one of her lovers is impotent, another is bisexual—are treated as matters of fact. She has two abortions, which Yates, again, presents without judgment. For a while she works on an essay about her experiences, and when she puts it away, it’s not because she’s traumatized or fearful of writing about abortion but because she can see, with her editor’s “gelid eye,” that the writing isn’t very good.
Yates based Emily in part on Natalie Bowen, a friend/girlfriend who worked as an editor at Putnam’s, and in part on himself. His own mother, Dookie, shared Pookie’s artistic ambitions and alcoholism, and he and his sister Ruth grew up in an environment that exactly tracks Sarah and Emily’s. The novel remains autobiographical throughout, from Sarah’s move to an under-maintained family estate on Long Island to Pookie’s eventual institutionalization.
In middle-age Emily, Yates’s stand-in, meets Jack Flanders, a poet who also seems a stand-in for Yates, animating a love affair between two versions of the same person. Flanders asks her to accompany him to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he’s been invited to teach for two years. As Jack struggles to work and teach—evoking Yates’s own experience at Iowa, when experimental writers like the Chilean novelist José Donoso competed with traditional realists like himself—he traps Emily in the web of his narcissism and despair. Insisting on writing in the main room of the house, he tells her, “I like being able to look up and see you. Moving in and out of the kitchen, hauling the vacuum cleaner.”
Emily tries to write too, but can’t, and Yates’s portrait of a woman stifled by male ego is so acute here. When she turns down Jack’s proposal of marriage and family and goes back to New York alone, it seems an excellent choice, no matter what the consequences might be.
Of course the consequences, Yates being a poet of life’s everyday brutality, are not good. Emily suffers just as much as Sarah does; her independent life is every bit as poisonous as Sarah’s housebound one. When her nephew Peter tells her admiringly, “You’ve always struck me as the original liberated woman,” the observation lands grimly and without solace.
The Easter Parade covers 40 years of massive social changes in the lives of women, but it offers almost no lengthy descriptions of the era or deliberations on what these changes mean. Instead Yates presents a compressed montage of brisk, vivid scenes, each one a masterpiece of gesture and detail. Late in life Sarah and Emily meet in a coffee shop to discuss the possibility of Sarah leaving Tony. In the middle of the scene, the narrative gaze travels to a booth across the aisle, where “a couple of young lovers were murmuring, side by side, the girl’s fingers tracing little elliptical patterns on the inner thigh of the boy’s tight, well-faded blue jeans.” It’s a tiny but electric shock of youthful sensuality that contrasts sharply with the sisters’ tense conversation. Sarah and Emily are alone together, while sex and pleasure sit nearby, almost close enough to touch.
The Easter Parade may be harsh in the fates it hands to Sarah and Emily, but it’s also even-handed in its treatment of them, two women who straddle the radical shifts of the twentieth century and discover that any path they might take is vexed with difficulty. And though neither of them makes good on their desire to write, Yates never treats their aspirations as foolish. Like the Grimes sisters, the characters in my novel have artistic ambitions that are hard to realize, and in The Easter Parade’s troubled women I found both historical connection and timeless resonance.
Yates himself was hardly a feminist. As Blake Bailey outlines in his well-wrought and wildly depressing biography, A Tragic Honesty, Yates was old-fashioned in his aesthetic and political values, and he was a pretty bad husband too. Yet he also lived his life among women—first his mother and sister, then his two wives and three daughters and assorted girlfriends—and from the evidence he understood a great deal about their lives. I think The Easter Parade is an inadvertent feminist classic, a woman’s book in the best possible meaning of that fraught term.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: ASTERISK.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Ocean Vuong, Kristen Arnett, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Alix Ohlin, and more—that are publishing this week.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: “Poet Vuong’s frank first novel (after Night Sky with Exit Wounds) takes the form of a letter from a man to his illiterate mother in which 28-year-old Little Dog, a writer who’s left the impoverished Hartford, Conn., of his youth for New York City, retraces his coming of age. His childhood is marked by abuse from his overworked mother, as well as the traumas he’s inherited from his mother’s and grandmother’s experiences during the Vietnam War. Having left Vietnam with them as a young boy, and after the incarceration of his father, Little Dog’s attempts to assimilate include contending with language barriers and the banal cruelty of the supposedly well-intentioned. He must also adapt to the world as a gay man and as a writer—the novel’s beating heart rests in Little Dog’s first, doomed love affair with another teenage boy, and in his attempts to describe what being a writer truly is. Vuong’s prose shines in the intimate scenes between the young men, but sometimes the lyricism has a straining, vague quality (‘They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they will love it’; ‘But the thing about forever is you can’t take it back’). Nevertheless, this is a haunting meditation on loss, love, and the limits of human connection.”
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mostly Dead Things: “In Arnett’s dark and original debut, Jessa discovers her father dead of a suicide in the family’s Florida taxidermy shop. She also finds a note asking her to take care of the failing business, her mother, and her brother, Milo. Additionally, Jessa mourns the loss of Brynn, her brother’s (now) ex-wife and Jessa’s longtime lover, who left both her and Milo years before. As Jessa grieves over her lost loved ones, she must also deal with her remaining ones: Milo sinks from the world, missing work and barely paying attention to his children, and Jessa’s mother enters a late creative period, using the stuffed and mounted animals from the shop to make elaborate sexual tableaus for a local art gallery. Jessa also begins a romantic relationship with Lucinda, the director of the gallery and benefactor for Jessa’s mother’s newfound (and, for Jessa, ‘perverted’) artistry. Set in a richly rendered Florida and filled with delightfully wry prose and bracing honesty, Arnett’s novel introduces a keenly skillful author with imagination and insight to spare.”
Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Save Me the Plums: “In this endearing memoir, James Beard Award–winning food writer Reichl (Tender at the Bone) tells the story of her 10-year stint (1999–2009) as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. Reichl made it her mission to return a stuffy Gourmet to the artistic and culinary glory she remembered from her childhood, taking it online and replacing high-brow guides to hosting with boundary-pushing cultural exposés and stories on street food. Recipes mark turning points in her story, like the Jeweled Chocolate Cake that won her credibility in the test kitchen (‘the dark, dense, near-bitterness of the cake collided with the crackling sweetness of the praline’ topping); the Thanksgiving Turkey Chili that she and her staff delivered to firefighters in the aftermath of 9/11; and Spicy Chinese Noodles—the midnight dish she often prepared for her son. Gourmet magazine readers will relish the behind-the-scenes peek at the workings of the magazine: Reichl details her decision to run ‘the edgiest article’ in Gourmet’s history, David Foster Wallace’s controversial piece on the ethics of boiling lobsters alive, and shares anecdotes about such writers as the late L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold and novelist Ann Patchett. Reichl’s revealing memoir is a deeply personal look at a food world on the brink of change.”
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In West Mills: “Winslow’s stellar debut follows the residents of a black neighborhood in a tiny North Carolina town over the course of several decades, beginning in 1941 and ending in 1987. At the center of the novel is ornery Azalea, nicknamed Knot. Twenty-six when the novel begins, she has moved to West Mills, where she now teaches in the elementary school, to get away from her middle-class family and to keep her drinking problem a secret from them. She never wants for male companionship, but her two closest friends are men with whom she has no romantic interest. Sweet, stable Otis Lee, who lives next door with beloved, mouthy wife Pep, keeps Knot grounded as she tries to choose between motherhood and independence. Gay bartender Valley, who spends years in D.C. and Europe between stretches in West Mills, provides her with a sense of the world outside. Events in that outside world, including WWII and the civil rights movement, touch lightly on the residents of the town, but most of their attention goes to personal relationships and to holding on to secrets that give them leverage over others. Knot is a wonderful character, with a stubborn commitment to her own desires. Winslow has a finely tuned ear for the way the people of this small town talk, and his unpretentiously poetic prose goes down like a cool drink of water on a hot day.”
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about City of Girls: “Gilbert (The Signature of All Things) begins her beguiling tale of an innocent young woman discovering the excitements and pleasures of 1940 New York City with a light touch, as her heroine, Vivian Morris, romps through the city. Gradually the story deepens into a psychologically keen narrative about Vivian’s search for independence as she indulges her free spirit and sexuality. Freshly expelled from Vassar for not attending any classes, 19-year-old Vivian is sent by her parents to stay with her aunt Peggy Buell in Manhattan. Peg runs a scruffy theater that offers gaudy musical comedies to its unsophisticated patrons. As WWII rages in Europe, Vivian is oblivious to anything but the wonder behind the stage, as she becomes acquainted with the players in a new musical called City of Girls, including the louche leading man with whom she falls in love with passionate abandon. Vivian flits through the nightclubs El Morocco, the Diamond Horseshoe, and the Latin Quarter, where she hears Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Louis Prima. Drinking heavily and scooting into the arms of numerous men, one night at the Stork Club she meets Walter Winchell, the notorious gossip columnist, who plays a pivotal role in the tabloid scandal in which Vivian becomes embroiled. Vivian’s voice—irreverent, witty, robust with slang—gradually darkens with guilt when she receives a devastating comeuppance. Eventually, she arrives at an understanding of the harsh truths of existence as the country plunges into WWII. Vivian—originally reckless and selfish, eventually thoughtful and humane—is the perfect protagonist for this novel, a page-turner with heart complete with a potent message of fulfillment and happiness.”
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Patsy: “A Jamaican woman abandons her daughter for a chance to reunite with her childhood friend turned lover in this wrenching second novel from Dennis-Benn (Here Comes the Sun). Adoring letters from Cicely, who left several years earlier, inspire Patsy to emigrate from Jamaica to America, but when she arrives in New York in 1998, her dreams of a romantic reunion are dashed by the discovery that Cicely has married an abusive husband. Forced to set out on her own, Patsy finds work as a bathroom attendant and a nanny. Meanwhile, Tru, her six-year-old daughter, is still in Jamaica under the care of her father, who helps to ease the girl’s devastation by teaching her to play soccer, a game she excels at. Though Patsy has decided that ‘the absence of a mother is more dignified than the presence of a distant one,’ as she settles into a sustainable life over the next decade, Tru struggles with depression and self-harm. Patsy’s ambivalence about motherhood transforms this otherwise familiar immigrant narrative into an immersive study in unintended consequences, where even the push Patsy’s new girlfriend gives her to try and make amends, by sending a gift to Tru, leads to disaster. Out of that debacle, though, a chance for rapprochement appears, one that sets the stage for Tru to turn her athletic talent into the kind of life her mother is still grasping at. This is a marvelous novel.”
Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dual Citizens: “Ohlin’s third novel (after Inside) is the engrossing, intricate tale of half-sisters Lark and Robin Brossard. In their Montreal childhood, Lark, a few years older, stands in for Robin’s mother, Marianne, who is mostly absent. Creative Robin is an excellent pianist while Lark is a quiet scholar. Lark wins a scholarship to a college near Boston, and her time there is the only period she isn’t tasked with being her sister’s keeper—until Robin appears at her doorstep during Lark’s second year. Lark becomes Robin’s guardian and the sisters move to New York: Lark to graduate film school as she hones her documentary filmmaking prowess and Robin to Juilliard for piano. Most of Lark’s time is spent working as an assistant for a reclusive director (who becomes her lover) and worrying after Robin, who drops out of school and aimlessly wanders. Later, in her mid-30s, Lark is desperate for a child, but her director-lover already has a grown daughter. When an accident upends Lark’s life, their roles reverse and Robin becomes caretaker of her sister. Ohlin smartly chooses a broad scope and expertly weaves Lark and Robin’s disparate lives into a singular thread, making for an exceptional depiction of the bond between sisters.”
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Most Fun We Ever Had: “Lombardo’s impressive debut follows the Sorenson clan—physician David, wife Marilyn, and their four daughters: Wendy, Violet, Liza, and Grace—through the 1970s to 2017. David and Marilyn raised the family in a rambling suburban Chicago house that belonged to Marilyn’s father. The daughters find varying degrees of success in their professional lives but fail to find the passion and romance that their parents continue to have in their own marriage. Wendy is a wealthy widow with a foul mouth and a drinking problem. Violet is a former lawyer turned stay-at-home mother of two young sons. At 32, Liza is a tenured professor with a depressive boyfriend. The baby of the family, 20-something Grace, is the only one of the daughters to have moved away, and now lives in Oregon. The daughters’ lives are in various stages of tumult: Wendy locates Jonah, the teenage son Violet gave up for adoption years prior; Violet struggles to integrate Jonah into her perfectly controlled life; Liza is shocked to discover she is pregnant; and Grace lies about being in law school after she was rejected. Lombardo captures the complexity of a large family with characters who light up the page with their competition, secrets, and worries. Despite its length and number of plotlines, the momentum never flags, making for a rich and rewarding family saga.”
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—for more June titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: Poet Ocean Vuong, winner of the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, returns with his highly anticipated debut novel. When Little Dog writes a letter to his illiterate mother, he reveals the family’s past as well as parts of his life he had hidden from his mother. With his tender, graceful style, Vuong’s family portrait explores race, class, trauma, and survival. (Carolyn)
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow: Winslow’s debut novel takes place in a small town in North Carolina from the 1940s to the 1980s. Through the story of Azalea “Knot” Centre, a fiercely independent woman, and Otis Lee, a helpful neighbor and longtime fixer, the narrative explores community and love with compassion and a singular voice. Rebecca Makkai describes Winslow’s voice as “one that’s not only pitch-perfect but also arresting and important and new.” (Zoë)
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett: In her Twitter bio, Arnett, known for her award-winning fiction and essays, describes herself thusly: “writer, librarian, lesbian willie nelson. 7-eleven scholar ™.” I assume you are already sold, but just in case: This debut novel starts when Jessa walks into the family taxidermy shop to find her father dead. Though grieving, she steps up to manage the business while her family unravels around her. Besides dead things, Jami Attenberg points out this novel includes all the best things, “messed-up families, scandalous love affairs, art, life, death and the great state of Florida.” (Claire)
The Travelers by Regina Porter: A debut novel-in-stories with a large cast of characters from two American families, one white, one black, flung across the world—in America, France, Vietnam, and Germany—from points in time ranging from 1950 to the early 2000s. Garth Greenwell calls this “an innovative and deeply moving debut.” (Lydia)
Oval by Elvia Wilk: In Elvia Wilk’s debut novel, weird things have been happening in Berlin: strange weather, artists hired as corporate consultants. Young couple Anja and Louis move into an “eco-friendly” community on an artificial mountain, The Berg, where they live rent-free in exchange for their silence on the house’s structural problems. When Louis invents a pill called Oval that has the power to temporarily rewire a user’s brain to become more generous, Anja is horrified—but Louis thinks it could solve Berlin’s income disparity. Described as speculative fiction, but also sort of just what life is like now, Oval depicts life in the Anthropocene, but a little worse. For fans of Gary Shteyngart and Nell Zink. (Jacqueline)
The Sun on My Head by Geovani Martins (translated by Julia Sanches): A literary sensation in Brazil, Martins’ debut short story collection finally comes to the United States. Steeped in violence, poverty, and drugs, the stories reveal the complexities and inner lives of those growing up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Publishers Weekly called the collection “tantalizing” and “a promising work from an intriguing new voice.” (Carolyn)
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung: Chung, who received an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction for her novel Forgotten Country, returns with her second novel. Katherine, an aging mathematician, recounts her life: her journey of becoming a scholar in the mid-20th century; her intellectual discoveries and failures; her romantic pursuits; her womanhood; and her parentage. Starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly call the novel “powerful and virtuosically researched” and “impressive, poignant,” respectively. (Carolyn)
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: New York Times Magazine staff writer Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel follows Toby Fleishman, a middle-aged hepatologist, whose recent separation from his career-driven wife, Rachel, resulted in her dropping their kids off with Toby and disappears. Publishers Weekly called the debut “sharp and tender-hearted,” and a “sardonically cheerful novel that readers will adore.”(Carolyn)
The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff: Sixteen-year-old Conrad returns to school to discover Sammy, his chemistry teacher and secret lover, is dead—and he’s left Conrad journals full of research and the recipe for the so-called Elixir of Life. Full of grief, Conrad sets out to solve the scientific puzzle to save the people he loves. Publishers Weekly says, “the search for an eternal life potion weaves through raw emotion, scientific curiosity, and heartbreak in Wolff’s intoxicating debut.” (Carolyn)
Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin: A coming-of-age story about half-sisters—Lark and Robin—who forge an unbreakable bond. From childhood to adulthood, the novel follows the sisters as they deal with personal failings, a falling out and, ultimately, coming back together. Kirkus called Ohlin’s latest a “lovely, deeply moving work.” (Carolyn)
My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon: MacArthur and Guggenheim recipient Hemon returns with a two-volume memoir set back-to-back. My Parents tells the story of his Ukrainian father and Bosnian mother as they flee their home in war-torn Yugoslavia for Canada. This Does Not Belong to You is a collection of memories, observations, and fragments from childhood. A dual meditation on memory, literature, and family. (Carolyn)
Travelers by Helon Habila: The unnamed Nigerian narrator of Habila’s newest novel is living in Berlin with his American life when he meets a group of African immigrants and refugees who change his worldview forever. Publishers Weekly writes that the “plight of contemporary African refugees is the dramatic core of this moving tale.” (Carolyn)
Mamaskatch by Darrel J. McLeod: Told in fragmented vignettes, McLeod’s coming-of-age memoir explores his Cree family’s history; his relationship with his mother; abuse; sexual identity; and personal and generational trauma. About the memoir, Terese Marie Mailhot says, “the hard and brilliant life breathing on the pages brought me to tears, to joy, and to grace.” (Carolyn)
Flash Count Diary Life by Darcey Steinke: The personal meets the political meets the biological in Steinke’s genre-bending book about menopause. Jenny Offill calls the book “part memoir, part manifesto, part natural history, this book is a profound white-knuckle ride through unnamed territories.” (Carolyn)