A line jumped out halfway through Richard Yates’s penultimate novel, Young Hearts Crying –
‘…but there was a persuasive tone of sadness all through the story and a well-earned sense of impending tragedy toward the end.’
And it was as if Yates had written a review of his own book.
As he did in Revolutionary Road and Cold Spring Harbour, Yates gives us a young couple – Michael and Lucy Davenport – furnishes them with ambition, some small achievements and then slowly takes apart their marriage, their good manners, their kindness. And in this case, their sanity (there’s a lot of therapy in Young Hearts Crying, even though Michael considers it ‘horse shit’).
But there’s a twist in the Davenport’s story because they’re not necessarily condemned to a bleak suburban life – on the night of their wedding, Lucy reveals that she has an enormous trust fund and that the money could be used to give Michael the time to write (he is a poet). However, Michael is adamant that they must succeed on merit alone and it is this struggle that forms the basis of the story.
It’s hard to know why I find Yates difficult to put down – it’s predictably grim, a sheer grind of hopelessness page after page without a glimmer of joy. It’s summed up by a minor character in Young Hearts Crying who says of life, ‘…you get by; you get through; the kids are born and start growing up, and pretty soon it’s all you can do to stay awake until it’s time to go to sleep.’
But I’m drawn to the relentlessness of Yates, to his ability to examine something so intensely, and to put new words to things that can be uncomfortably familiar. I also can’t turn away from his often unlikeable characters. In Young Hearts Crying, Michael is compelling – a self-absorbed and self-important bully, whose bitterness and lack of empathy is spectacular –
‘Listening to the tone and rhythm of his own voice as it warmed to its subject, as it enlarged on its theme of high hopes and modest expectations, and as it came to a graceful conclusion on a note of wry self-effacement, he realized what he was doing: he was trying to impress the shy, attentive young stranger at Bill Brock’s side. She wasn’t even an especially pretty girl, but she was here, brand new…’
Michael captures the contradiction that Yates returns to over and over in his characters – the desperate desire to be different, to stand apart from the crowd and yet, the constant comparison to others, the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’.
As in his other stories, the sense of time is extraordinary. Yates doesn’t have to be explicit about this stuff – instead, quiet references to public opinion (on everything from the military and psychoanalysis to single mothers and teenagers) firmly roots the story in time. In Young Hearts Crying, the challenge of growing up in the conformist 1940s to living in the hedonistic 1960s is explored through Michael and Lucy and the result is gripping.
4/5 Never fails to keep me reading well into the night.
‘Well, what the hell: why marry some plain girl when you can get a pretty girl instead?’ From the tone of his own voice Michael could tell he had begun to drink too much, too fast, but he was sober enough to know he could still repair the damage by staying away from the whiskey for the next hour.