As a hopeless romantic, a glutton for tragedy and, perhaps above all, a diehard Titanic fan, it was essential for me to catch the DiCaprio-Winslet film made of this story as soon as it entered the cinemas. The experience was at once hugely enjoyable, thought-provoking and heart-breaking- its the kind of film that can only be watched with one’s hands over one’s eyes, peaking occasionally through one’s fingers while internally screaming at the characters “no, please don’t do that, no, wait! – can’t you see what’s going to happen?! Seriously, stop it! – oh for fuck’s sake…”
But it has long since been a personal rule to always read the book of which the film was made, and so this year I finally got around to doing so. One point of instant note to me was how this book is very much told from a male perspective (understandably so, since it was written by one). Told in turn from the viewpoints of Frank Wheeler, Shep Campbell and other minor male characters, save for the occasional twitterings of domestic maniac Helen Givings, we rarely get a glimpse into the minds of the female protagonists and are instead lead through their actions from a male gaze. This suggests a bias which I’m sure was by no means unintentional. None of our characters are sympathetic; the men, through whose eyes we experience the story are self-conscious, over-analytical and pathetically egotistical all, with lengthy paragraphs devoted to their self-analysis and the torturous bleetings of their super egos. The women are portrayed either as fussing, obsessive housewives (Helen Givings), homely, trusting innocents (Milly Campbell) or irrational, cruel, unstable ice goddesses (April Wheeler).
This is not to say that the central protagonist, Frank Wheeler, is anything but the tale’s antihero. While at times his over-analytical nature is extremely relatable, it is nonetheless cringe-worthy, self-important and obsessive, like Peep Show without the laughs. Through his internal monologue we hear of his dissatisfaction with his job (which has involuntarily turned into a career while he wasn’t paying attention), fatherhood and his relationship with his wife. During the disintegration of his marriage, we hear of all of his attempts to regain and reaffirm his masculinity, which comes across as his primary concern.
Our tale centers on the unhappy domestic life of Frank and his by turns doting and insufferable wife, April. Once a glamorous, exciting and beautiful couple, the Wheelers have relinquished their city life in favour of suburban Conneticut at the arrival of two unplanned and painfully inconvenient children. We experience the repetitive drudgery of the ‘hopeless emptiness’ of suburban life of those desperate to escape it, but unable to find the courage to do so. April Wheeler, portrayed (by her husband) as unstable and depressive, is especially unhappy with her lot of housewife and mother. In her struggle to escape and claim some identity for herself, character points which would have no doubt made her strange and cold to a sixties audience seem far less alien from a modern perspective. Regardless, this is not a modern novel, and the social demands and gender roles of the 1950s are entirely different animals, working away like burrowing scarabs in the minds of both Frank and April, and to the detriment of both.
With every lurid graphic detail of a car crash, we see every one of our characters fall victim to the unspoken villain of the piece: convention. They are all victims of this ever-present spectre, as it drives each into acts of cowardice, malice and desperation. Yates leaves us with the shuddering impression of the effects of one size-fits-all social norms and the compromise of personal goals, all told with the surgical precision and clinical distance of a stenographer’s report.
Probably not to be recommended to anyone planning on parenthood or marriage any time soon.