“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” Thus begins Richard Yates’s neglected masterpiece, The Easter Parade . The reader so delights in his arrow-swift narrative that she forgets the foreboding note.
The Grimes sisters lead a nomadic life. Their divorced mother, Pookie, fails at several jobs so this family of women moves around a lot. Yet Sarah, the older sister, copes well with their scratched-together life, and informs the younger Emily about important subjects like sex. Of the two, Sarah is the pretty, popular sister, and something of a daredevil. She is strong-willed: she stubbornly draws the line when her employer says she must go to the Easter Parade, wearing a dress of heavy silk, of the kind worn by aristocratic Chinese women, and mingle with the crowd.
She tells her mother, “I don’t care about the silly Easter parade. Tony and I were planning to drive out to Amagansett today.”
But Sarah’s boyfriend, Tony, who has a romantic English accent and looks like a young Laurence Olivier, solves the problem by donning “an English cutaway, complete with flowering ascot, dove-grey waistcoat and striped trousers,” and accompanying Sarah to the Easter Parade. A photo of the beautiful couple appears in The New York Times. In 1941 they marry, and apparently bliss lies ahead. They are so in love that every time they have a cocktail, they entwine their arms before they take the first sip. But after marriage, Sarah becomes a housewife, indistinguishable from other housewives.
Emily is by far the more ambitious of the two sisters, a bright young woman who gets a full scholarship to Barnard and does well on an intellectual level. Her problem is with men. One man drops her because he is bisexual and wants to be with a man. Then a chubby, nervous intellectual, Andrew Crawford, constantly apologizes to Emily for his impotence in bed. She reassures him kindly, but does not know what she can do. After a year in psychoanalysis, Andrew calls Emily, claims he is cured, and asks her to marry him. Why Emily marries him I cannot say, but his problems in bed continue.
It is inevitable that Andrew and Emily should divorce, and after that she concentrates on her career in advertising. She rises through the ranks, having a genius for copy-writing, and her female boss, who wants to give women opportunities, adores her for a while. In her free time, Emily has many affairs with men. This being the kind of book it is, she falls in love with a lawyer, Howard, who is very nice to her, but confides that he is still in love with his ex-wife, a woman who is 25 or thirty years younger than he. Emily believes she has the perfect relationship with him, but she never feels secure. As she enters her forties and begins to lose her looks, she finds herself alone, with only her job. Then her career also takes a dive, and she descends into poverty. She tries to write magazine articles about the fate of aging career women, but is unable to finish them.
Meanwhile, somewhere on Long Island, Sarah tries to write humor (she admires Cornelia Otis Skinner), but Tony tells her she isn’t funny. Much later, we learn that the once suave Tony beats her up once a month. Sarah does ask Emily for help, but Emily refuses to get involved because she and her lawyer lover more or less live together, and she doesn’t have room for Sarah in her apartment. Howard says he could find a job for Sarah at the corporation where he works, but Emily ignores him. And this lack of solidarity between sisters, as you can imagine, ruins Sarah’s life. Sarah is unrecognizable: often bruised, with teeth knocked out.
So what would have happened if Sarah had pursued humor writing and Emily had pursued journalism? Would that have given them self-respect?
In some ways this novel reminds me of Nancy Hale’s brilliant, disturbing, slightly maudlin 1942 best-seller, The Prodigal Woman, which was recently reissued by Library of America. In this pessimistic novel, the friendship of three women does not last. Maisie, the gorgeous older sister of Betsy, is so constantly abused by the artist she marries that she agrees to have an abortion in South America on their honeymoon. While she recovers from a botched abortion (which ruins her health), her husband goes out all day and night and has sex with other women Later, Maisie’s old friend Leda, who is from an old New England family, blatantly steals Maisie’s husband, despising Maisie for being weak and sickly. And Maisie’s younger sister Betsy, happy as a career woman in New York, gets involved with a weak, hysterical man who occasionally beats her up. She stands by him. Bye, New York.
Although Yates thinks his two tragic sisters’ lives are ruined by their parents’ divorce, and it certainly accounts for some problems, I believe Nancy Hale’s thesis is also accurate. Reading this alongside The Prodigal Women, one wonders if instead it has to do with the culture. Men resent the shackle of marriage, or want to be mothered; and the women (except for Leda) try to provide what is needed. And Richard Yates shows us that women have a sell-by date, which obstructs the rise of their careers and their chances of marriage.
Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade is a small masterpiece. A pleasure to read, despite the tragic trajectory of the two women’s lives. And The Prodigal Women is the perfect beach read: Mary McCarthy’s The Group crossed with Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.