Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

I’ve written before about Richard Yates, a writer with an innate ability to understand his characters’ failings and self-delusions, portraying the bitter cruelty of their dashed dreams with real insight and humanity. In this, his penultimate novel, Yates offers us another riff on this theme by focusing on a young couple, Michael and Lucy Davenport, just starting out on their lives together in 1950s New York.

While Lucy’s family are very wealthy, Michael refuses to live off his wife’s money, preferring instead to pursue his ambitions as a writer, supplementing his income with a mindless job in a publishing house. At the start of the novel, Michael and Lucy seem very much in love with one another, but all too soon the marriage begins to stagnate and sour. Michael generates some interest in his work with an early collection of poems – particularly his best piece ‘Coming Clean’ – however, he struggles to repeat the success. Meanwhile, Lucy is becoming increasingly frustrated with their second-rate living conditions, knowing full well that her fortune could buy them a more comfortable lifestyle. Comparisons with their friends, the Nelsons, only make matters worse for the Davenports, particularly given Tom Nelson’s success as an artist with pieces in some of the leading galleries in New York.

By the end of the first section of this three-part novel, the Davenports’ marriage is over, leaving Michael with little idea of what to do next.

He left the house, slamming the kitchen door, and made his way up past the extravagance of Ben Duane’s flower beds. But once he was at his desk he couldn’t lift a pencil or even see straight. He could only sit with half his fist in his mouth, breathing hard through his nose, trying to comprehend that the bottom had dropped out of everything. It was over.

He was thirty-five, and he was as frightened as a child at the thought of having to live alone. (pp.116-117)

In the second and third sections of the novel, we learn what happens to Lucy and Michael following the split. Lucy fares better than Michael in this respect, pursuing various creative activities in an effort to find herself. As the months slip by, Lucy dabbles in acting, taking the role of Blanche DuBois in a local production of A Streetcar Named Desire; she joins a creative writing class, drawing on some of her own experiences to produce some promising short stories; finally, Lucy tries her hand at painting, but with limited success – in truth, her works are naïve and amateurish. There are various affairs and relationships along the way, most of which are short-lived, just like her passionate liaison with Jack Halloran (aka Casimir), the enigmatic director of the theatre group.

Later still, when she lay on her bed and gave in at last to the kind of crying Tennessee Williams described as “luxurious,” she wished she had allowed him to write down his name. Casimir what? Casimir who? And she knew now her nice little curtain-line about Stanley Kowalski had been worse than cheap and spiteful – oh, worse; worse. It had been a lie, because she would always and always remember him as Jack Halloran. (p. 181)

Michael, for his part, continues to pursue his literary ambitions, but once again with limited success. His early life post-Lucy is characterised by periods of instability and mental illness, culminating in a spell in Bellevue, a specialist psychiatric hospital in New York. In time, Michael finds some solace in the form of a new, much younger wife, Sarah Garvey, a guidance counsellor at his daughter’s school, but he never seems truly contented.

Meanwhile, the Davenports’ daughter, Laura (aged nine at the time of her parents’ separation) is becoming increasingly disconnected from the world, eventually leaving her home with Lucy to join a hippy commune in California.

The novel closes on a more optimistic note with a meeting between the two Davenports. By now, Lucy is in a good place in life, gaining fulfilment from her new role as an ambassador for Amnesty International. There is a sense that she at least has stopped chasing after the pursuit of artistic fulfilment, possibly in the realisation that it might be hopelessly beyond her talents. For Michael, the situation is more ambiguous; his imminent move to a new teaching job in Boston may lead to the break-up of his second marriage; however, he seems relaxed about the future, still harbouring ambitions of another success to rival ‘Coming Clean’. As for his relationship with Sarah, there is a sense of que será, será – whatever will be, will be.

In writing this novel, Yates gives us an insight into the frustrations and disappointments of a suburban existence, of young hopes eroded by the crushing realities of life. The sections focusing on Lucy’s experiences are particularly good, illustrating once more this author’s undoubted skills in portraying complex, flawed women in ways that feel both perceptive and humane.

While the novel lacks the dramatic tension of Revolutionary Road, it is still very much worth reading for the nuanced characterisation alone. Probably one for Yates completists rather than newbies, who might be better starting with The Easter Parade, or possibly the short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Irrespective of the changing times, Yates is a writer whose work still stands up today; the emotions he captures in these books are enduring and timeless.

(Revolutionary Road was a pre-blog read for me, hence the lack of review – but you can find Max’s excellent post on the novel here.)

Young Hearts Crying is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

32 thoughts on “Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

  1. Caroline

    It sounds more hopeful than earlier Yates The themes appeal to me very much and since I want to read all of him, I’ll get to this some day as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s certainly not as bleak as The Easter Parade (which remains my favourite), but it does have certain moments of despair. I think you’ll like it though as you know what to expect from his work!

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    The books’s plot and characters sound so interesting. I need to dig into some twentieth century fiction more. The description makes me think about my parents. They were married in the New York area around this time. However, their world was blue collar suburbia. The Davenport’s and their lifestyle would have seemed wildly exotic to them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There is something rather alluring and exotic about the Davenports, probably a combination of their artistic leanings and Lucy’s privileged background. Plus there’s the suburban setting and backdrop of the American Dream.

      I think you’d find Richard Yates very interesting from a social history perspective. It’s hard to think of another writer (maybe Evan S Connell?) who captured the loneliness and disillusionment of 1950s America with such perceptiveness and humanity.

      Reply
  3. realthog

    *sigh* Yet another author I’ve never read whose work you make sound so irresistibly enticing, Jacqui! Don’t you realize I already have a whole houseful of books I haven’t yet read? And that’s even before you get to the ebooks on the tablet . . .

    Apropos of nothing, have you see The Eclipse (2009), with Ciaran Hinds, Iben Hjejle and Aidan Quinn? Pam and watched it a couple of nights ago and loved it. It occurred to me at the time (and still does) that this one might be right up your street.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do think he’s one the giants of 20th-century literature, the kind of writer that every reader should consider trying at some point in their life. Probably not with this book, but one of the others I’ve mentioned in my closing comments above. (PS Don’t bother with the Sam Mendes adaptation of Revolutionary Road as it’s not a particularly good representation of the book – the novel is so much richer in terms of insights and themes!)

      As for The Eclipse, no I haven’t seen it. In fact I hadn’t even heard of it until you mentioned it here. I shall take a proper look, thanks. (The Co. Cork setting sounds particularly interesting as my mother’s family hails from there.)

      Reply
      1. realthog

        The Co. Cork setting sounds particularly interesting as my mother’s family hails from there.

        I’m somewhat smug on this front. Pam was ecstatic about the scenery in the movie — urban, coastal, rural — and asked me where it was. Having completely forgotten that Cobh is a real place, I said it looked to me like Co. Cork. When we checked up later . . . well, bingo! Wotta genius, etc. So I was told I could load the dishwasher . . .

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Well spotted! It’s a gorgeous part of the world, so peaceful and unassuming – at least that’s how I remember it from the summer holidays of my youth. We always went back there for the season so my mother could see her family.

          Reply
  4. Jay

    I’ve only read Revolutionary Road by Yates, which was soul-crushing enough that I haven’t read more by him. :) This one sounds interesting, though. Thanks for making me aware of it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. This novel isn’t as hard-hitting or bruising as Revolutionary Road. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s fairly hopeful at the end, particularly where Lucy’s future is concerned. So, worth considering if you ever feel the urge to try another of his books, without the degree of bleakness associated with Rev. Road.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always Jacqui. I think I do need to give Yates another chance; I read him a while back and I think I found some notes about it the other day which slightly contracted the opinion I think I have of him now! (But I would read him very differently nowadays I think). Maybe the short stories are the way to go!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting how our perspectives of certain books and writers can change over time. I doubt whether I would have taken so firmly to Yates in my youth as he seems like a writer best appreciated with some experience of life behind you. It’s probably easier for us to relate to his protagonists once we’ve experienced the sense of disillusionment that can come with our thirties or forties. I guess that’s partly why I like his work so much, the idea that the emotions he captures have a timeless quality irrespective of the 1950s setting.

      For you, I would definitely recommend the stories, ideally Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. They’re short, striking and probably more focused than some of his novels (certainly the longer ones). One or two of his shorts even remind me of Elizabeth Taylor’s work. If you’re tempted to give him another go, try The Best of Everything from the ‘Loneliness’ collection – who knows, you might be pleasantly surprised!

      Reply
  6. Jane

    This does sound a good read, I’ve only read Revolutionary Road (loved it) but might go next to Easter Parade, thank you for reminding me of him!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. The Easter Parade is superb, one of the great novels of its time, so full of feeling and emotion. I hope you like it should you decide to give it a go!

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    I really want to read more Richard Yates, and this sounds excellent. Thank you for reminding me about his writing. I loved Easter Parade but it’s ages since I read that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this, although it’s definitely a little more baggy than The Easter Parade – mind you, that’s probably a function of the nature of Michael and Lucy’s lives rather than a criticism of the novel itself! Alternatively, the stories would be a fine choice, especially as you have a fondness for a good collection. Either way, you have lots to look forward to with this author, plenty of great reading in store.

      Reply
  8. madamebibilophile

    I haven’t read Yates in quite a while, and as Caroline commented, this does sound a bit more hopeful than his other work! I must get back to him soon, you’re such a great advocate for him Jacqui :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’ve only got one of his novels left to read now, so my Yates obsession is rapidly approaching its natural end! This could be an interesting one for you to try next (depending on which of his others you’ve already read) – as ever, the relationships are so well observed.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The scenarios Yates depicts are pretty bleak, but they’re captured with real insight and authenticity. I think he’s one of the giants of 20th century literature, a great chronicler of the anxieties and disillusionment of American life.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I think Yates draws on various experiences from his own life for these books. The somewhat tragic, alcoholic mother with artistic leanings crops ups again and again in his work, as does the mostly absent father. I’d really like to read Blake bailey’s biography at some point, just to get a better understanding of his life.

          Reply
  9. Izzy

    I love Richard Yates and Easter Parade is also my favourite so far. I haven’t read this one yet but Lucy’s character seems to have a lot in common with April Wheeler, only she succeeds where April failed ?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s a very interesting observation; there are certain parallels, for sure! I like the way Lucy finds some sense of fulfilment in the end – not through the arts or creative pursuits but in her work for a human rights organisation. There’s a sense of ease about her character by that point, a feeling that she has finally found some meaning or purpose in her life. Quite a contrast to April Wheeler’s fate in Rev. Road…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Only one: Cold Spring Harbour, which I’m going to try to save for a while. Otherwise, it’ll be re-reads as I’ve also worked my way through all of his stories!

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a Reply to Jane Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.