This book begins and ends with some brilliant lines. First the opening line:
Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.
And the second to last line in the book has Emily say:
‘Yes, I’m tired,’ she said. ‘And do you know a funny thing? I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.’
Now it was tempting to just add the excellent Vintage Classics cover and leave the review at that….but I didn’t.
The Easter Parade was first published in 1976 and is about two sisters, Emily and Sarah and their mother Esther, whom they call ‘Pookie’. At the beginning of the novel it’s 1930, Sarah is nine years old and Emily is five. They live with their mother, who has dreams of making her fortune in the real estate business but, as usual, she fails. All this, by the way, is outlined in the first page so we really feel as if we instantly know these characters. The girls’ father Walter, whom they idolise, writes headlines for the New York Sun. An early episode in the novel shows the sisters’ idolisation of their father beginning to be eroded. There are other childhood incidents such as an accident whilst staying with another family and the girls talking about sex. They move houses constantly and the girls are therefore always changing schools which all adds to the disruption of their lives; but in 1940 they move back to New York.
In New York Sarah gets engaged to the rather elusive Donald Clellon but this soon gets dropped when she meets Tony Wilson who lives in a flat in the same building. Tony is also approved of by both of Sarah’s parents. Emily, meanwhile, is interested in how this will pan out but does not really think much of Tony. As part of her job Sarah has to attend an Easter Parade and Tony decides to tag along. It turns out that a photograph of the couple appears in The New York Times which ‘caught Sarah and Tony smiling at each other like the very soul of romance in the April sunshine…’. This photograph is mentioned at various times through the novel as a comparison to the deteriorating relationship of the couple.
After Sarah’s marriage the novel is more concerned with Emily’s development. Being the younger sister she had been in her sister’s shadow a little; but she is more academic and more bohemian than Sarah and takes a different path through life, especially after she’s awarded a full scholarship to Barnard College. Before she leaves for college her father dies at the age of fifty-seven and although both girls loved their father Emily, unlike Sarah, finds that she does not feel the need to cry:
And Emily had yet to shed a single tear. It troubled her all the way back to the city, and she rode with one hand sandwiched between her cheek and the cool, shuddering glass of the limousine window, as if that might help. She tried whispering ‘Daddy’ to herself, tried closing her eyes and picturing his face, but it didn’t work. Then she thought of something that made her throat close up: she might never have been her father’s baby, but he had always called her ‘little rabbit.’ And she was crying easily now, causing her mother to reach over and squeeze her hand; the only trouble was that she couldn’t be sure whether she cried for her father or for Warren Maddock, or Maddox, who was back in South Carolina now being shipped out to a division.
But she stopped crying abruptly when she realized that even that was a lie: these tears, as always before in her life, were wholly for herself—for poor, sensitive Emily Grimes whom nobody understood, and who understood nothing.
As with the quote from the end of the novel there is mention of Emily understanding nothing.
We now follow Emily as she embarks on numerous love affairs. She has an absolutely disastrous marriage to an angry, impotent man called Crawford. Other lovers leave her for various reasons and she has a couple of abortions. Meanwhile Sarah has three sons and is apparently leading the ideal married life, while Pookie is drinking more and more. I won’t reveal much more of the plot but it’s no surprise, given the opening line of the novel, that everything is on the slide downwards. Yates handles this brilliantly; it’s not that there’s no hope, both Emily and Sarah have attempts at writing for example and both continue to see each other and their mother, it’s just that all their relationships decay, and decay badly. Although the novel is now from Emily’s point of view it’s Sarah’s marriage that is more horrific. Emily has more freedom and is more independent than Sarah, who fears being left alone, but by the end of the book Emily finds herself jobless and isolated, hardly unable to look after herself. But the ending is pure brilliance, the last few pages are a rollercoaster but at the end, after everything, there is a little hope.