Acting on a reliable tip, I recently picked up a copy of Richard Yates’ classic novel from 1961, “Revolutionary Road.” The late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said this book was “‘The Great Gatsby’ of my time.” Tennessee Williams said of it, “If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction, I am sure I don’t know what it is.”
“Revolutionary Road” almost killed me with its depth, clarity, and seemingly effortless prose. Richard Ford, in The New York Times Book Review (April 9, 2000), referred to its “luminous particularity” and its “consummate writerliness.” He praised the book’s “deep seriousness toward us human beings – about whom it conjures shocking insights and appraisals.” JJ, a character in Nick Hornby’s novel “A Long Way Down,” plans to commit suicide with a copy of “Revolutionary Road” in his pocket because it would add a “mystique” to his death and because it would lead more people to read it.
It’s that kind of book. I haven’t been so rattled by a novel since “A Catcher in the Rye,” with the possible exception of Arthur Miller’s “Focus.” (What was it about the 1950s that created fiction of such clear and biting social criticism?) Unfortunately for Kate Jacobs, author of the very successful “Friday Night Knitting Club” of a few years ago, I chose to follow “Revolutionary Road” with a reviewer’s copy of her follow-up novel “Comfort Food.”
Unfortunate indeed, and perhaps unfair, as the two novels are very different creatures. Whereas “Revolutionary Road” is a “serious” (yet highly readable) novel, “Comfort Food” is light and breezy entertainment. You’d think that would be something of an airy relief after the literary gravitas of “Revolutionary Road,” but alas, no.
Before I say more, let me give you a quick rundown on the storyline. The protagonist is a widow named “Gus” (short for “Augustus”) who has just turned 50. For the past dozen or so years she has worked as the host of a number of foodie television shows on a network not unlike The Food Network. She lives in a swishy Long Island suburb in a nice airy house and has a couple of teenage children. She has little, if any, formal training, but was “discovered” by a network executive while she was running a quaint and comfortable cafe next to one of the commuter train stations.
In other words, the character is Ina Garten, of “Barefoot Contessa” fame, except that she’s a widow and weighs 125 pounds. (The character’s good looks and slenderness are described early on, along with details about her enviable kitchen.) That’s the character and the setting. The story revolves around her conflicts with the network and with herself as she doesn’t easily accept the fact that she’s turning 50.
OK, that sounds like a respectable enough fluffy book for the beach this summer, and for many people it will be. But I just couldn’t get into it. It could be argued that I’m not part of the target demographic for this book, although I would counter that I like watching Food Network shows, and I like discourse around kitchen and cooking issues. I would also say that I’m not a WWII veteran in my late-20’s who has turned his back on the “boho” scene of mid-1950s Greenwich Village in favor of the suburban Connecticut lifestyle and a mid-town office job, yet that sure didn’t turn me off of “Revolutionary Road.”
I think what really got me (or, as it were, failed to get me) about “Comfort Food” was simply the lack of craft in the writing. It was functional and utilitarian, but it didn’t rise above (or go below) the page. It was like a drinking buddy’s anecdote versus a ripping oratory, or like overheard prattle in a cafe in which there is nothing sordid to at least hold your attention. 15 pages in, all I had gotten was a chatty setup of the character and the situation (which I’ve managed to describe for you in a paragraph). I was already growing tired of the complaints about turning 50. By page 20 I had learned no more, so I put the book down. I haven’t picked it up again, and I don’t plan to.
Frankly, I’ve never understood the concept of the “beach novel.” That’s not to say every piece of fiction should be like some kind of Gordian knot. Quite the contrary; when a novel is too challenging I quickly lose interest.
But there needs to be a sense of craft in the writing beyond just getting the grammar right. It’s not enough to just say what the character is thinking or doing. There’s got to be a dialog happening below the page, where the reader and the writer find a communion outside of the text. It’s not just about what is said, it’s about what is not said. Not said, yet known. That subtext is one of the beauties of “Revolutionary Road” and it seemed entirely absent in “Comfort Food.”
I realize it is unfair of me to review and judge a book after reading only 20 pages. Perhaps the story might have picked up, and perhaps there were more compelling characters waiting to emerge. But it is often said that for a book to succeed the reader needs to be captivated by the end of the second page. I gave it twenty, and in that time the overall tone did not change. There was nothing to look forward to, so I put it down. At least I didn’t throw it across the room, as I’m wont to do when I truly despise a book. No, I didn’t hate this one, it just didn’t grab me.