Easter Reading from Richard Holloway and Richard Yates

I found a lesser-known Yates novel on my last trip to our local charity warehouse and saved it up for the titular holiday. I also remembered about a half-read theology book I’d packed away with the decorative wooden Easter egg and tin with a rabbit on in the holiday stash behind the spare room bed. And speaking of rabbits…

(I also gave suggestions of potential Easter reading, theological or not, in 2015, 2017, and 2018.)

 

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates (1976)

Yates sets out his stall with the first line: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” I’d seen the film of Revolutionary Road, and my impression of Yates’s work was confirmed by this first taste of his fiction: an atmosphere of mid-century (sub)urban ennui, with the twin ills of alcoholism and adultery causing the characters to drift inexorably towards tragedy.

The novel follows Sarah and Emily Grimes from the 1930s to the 1970s. Emily, four years younger, has always known that her sister is the pretty one. Twenty-year-old Sarah is tapped to model traditional Chinese dress during an Easter parade and be photographed by the public relations office of United China Relief, for whom she works in fundraising. Sarah had plans with her fiancé, Tony Wilson, and is unenthusiastic about taking part in the photo shoot, while Emily thinks what she wouldn’t give to appear in the New York Times.

The mild rivalry resurfaces in the years to come, though the sisters take different paths: Sarah marries Tony, has three sons, and moves to the Wilson family home out on Long Island; in New York City, Emily keeps up an unending stream of lovers and English-major jobs: bookstore clerk, librarian, journal editor, and ad agency copywriter. Sarah envies Emily’s ability to live as a free spirit, while Emily wishes she could have Sarah’s loving family home – until she learns that it’s not as idyllic as it appears.

What I found most tragic wasn’t the whiskey-soused poor decisions so much as the fact that both sisters have unrealized ambitions as writers. They long to follow in their headline-writing father’s footsteps: Emily starts composing a personal exposé on abortion, and later a witty travel guide to the Midwest when she accompanies a poet boyfriend to Iowa so he can teach in the Writers’ Workshop; Sarah makes a capable start on a book about the Wilson family history. But both allow their projects to wither, and their promise is unfulfilled.

Yates’s authentic characterization, forthright prose, and incisive observations on the futility of modern life and the ways we choose to numb ourselves kept this from getting too depressing – though I don’t mind bleak books. Much of the novel sticks close to Emily, who can, infuriatingly, be her own worst enemy. Yet the ending offers her the hand of grace in the form of her nephew Peter, a minister. I read the beautiful final paragraphs again and again.

A readalike I’ve reviewed (sisters, one named Sarah!): A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble

My rating:

 

The Way of the Cross by Richard Holloway (1986)

Each year the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a short book for the Anglican Communion to use as Lenten reading. This study of the crucifixion focuses on seven of the Stations of the Cross, which are depicted in paintings or sculptures in most Anglo-Catholic churches, and emphasizes Jesus’s humble submission and the irony that the expected Son of God came as an executed criminal rather than an exalted king. Holloway weaves scripture passages and literary quotations through each chapter, and via discussion questions encourages readers to apply the themes of power, envy, sin, and the treatment of women to everyday life – not always entirely naturally, and the book does feel dated. Not a stand-out from a prolific author I’ve enjoyed in the past (e.g., Waiting for the Last Bus).

Favorite lines:

“the yearly remembrance of the life of Christ is a way of actualizing and making that life present now, in the universal mode of sacramental reality.”

“Powerlessness is the message of the cross”

My rating:

 


Recently read for book club; I’ll throw it in here for its dubious thematic significance (the protagonist starts off as an innocently blasphemous child and, disappointed with God as she’s encountered him thus far, gives that name to her pet rabbit):

 

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (2011)

I’d enjoyed Winman’s 2017 Tin Man so was very disappointed with this one. You can tell it was a debut novel because she really threw the kitchen sink in when it comes to quirkiness and magic realism. Secondary characters manage to be more engaging than the primary ones though they are little more than a thumbnail description: the lesbian actress aunt, the camp old lodger, etc. I also hate the use of 9/11 as a plot device, something I have encountered several times in the last couple of years, and stupid names like Jenny Penny. Really, the second part of this novel just feels like a rehearsal for Tin Man in that it sets up a close relationship between two gay men and a woman.

Two major themes, generally speaking, are intuition and trauma: characters predict things that they couldn’t know by ordinary means, and have had some awful things happen to them. Some bottle it all up, only for it to explode later in life; others decide not to let childhood trauma define them. This is a worthy topic, certainly, but feels at odds with the carefully cultivated lighthearted tone. Winman repeatedly introduces something sweet or hopeful only to undercut it with a tragic turn of events.

The title phrase comes from a moment of pure nostalgia for childhood, and I think the novel may have been better if it had limited itself to that rather than trying to follow all the characters into later life and sprawling over nearly 40 years. Ultimately, I didn’t feel that I knew much about Elly, the narrator, or what makes her tick, and Joe and Jenny Penny almost detract from each other. Pick one or the other, brother or best friend, to be the protagonist’s mainstay; both was unnecessary.

My rating:

16 responses

  1. I’m a big Yates fan so this is a TBR. And I’m sorry that the Holloway isn’t as good a read as Waiting for the Last Bus, which at my age is probably more relevant to me than to you! I seem to remember I didn’t bother to finish When God was a Rabbit. I hope you have a happy Easter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read a lot about ageing and death; I guess I’m preparing myself!

      Like

      1. Oh come ON Rebecca! It’s bad enough when it marches forward!

        Like

      2. I guess the way I think about it is, death is going to happen to me and to everyone I love, whether I like it or not, so why would I avoid it? Reading is how I learn, and how I imagine myself into other people’s experiences. I’d read a few bereavement memoirs before, but it was really my brother-in-law’s diagnosis and death from brain cancer, 2010-2015, that got me reading a lot about medicine, illness and death. Ageing is sort of an adjacent topic that I got into largely by reading Diana Athill’s memoirs and May Sarton’s journals.

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  2. If you enjoyed The Easter Parade, you’ll probably like The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage.

    Happy Easter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Like

  3. The Easter Parade is such a heart-breaking read. It was my first Yates and I loved it. We don’t really celebrate Easter around here, but hope you had a good one 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A rather good choice for my first Yates, I think. I’ll definitely be reading more: RR, plus my library has a novella I’d not heard of back in the rolling stacks.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I still haven’t read Yates, so have treats in store. I agree re When God was a Rabbit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The rest of the book club liked it more than I did, but once I pointed it out they did all agree that there was way too much thrown in and then not followed through.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Happy Easter! I have a few Yates to read but am never sure if I’m going to like him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, you know to expect depressing … but choose the timing well and I think you’d like him!

      Like

  6. I really liked Revolutionary Road when I read it about 15 years ago (despite it being rather depressing), and have always meant to read another. I’m glad to hear you liked this one!

    I’ve heard from a bunch of people now that they didn’t like When God was a Rabbit. Which is too bad because I like both the cover and the title!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really looking forward to Revolutionary Road — but I know to expect a depressing read!

      Most of my book club members liked When God Was a Rabbit well enough, but I think I sowed doubt in their mind by pointing out the problems 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m intrigued by your enthusiasm for the final chapters of the Yates novel. He’s someone that I have vague ideas of reading straight through, but it hasn’t happened yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He’s got a small enough oeuvre that that would be doable, even within a year if you so chose.

      It was really just the last few paragraphs here that felt redemptive after so much relentless sadness. I’ll keep them in mind for my “best first/last lines” superlatives I do in a year-end post.

      Liked by 1 person

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