The Easter Parade (1976) is inhabited by characters who are trapped in self-delusion and false appearances, constantly parading the lives they think they should be living. It’s like a pattern from which they are unable to break free.
The novel follows the Grimes sisters, Sarah and Emily, from their childhood in the 1940’s to their middle-age in the 1970’s. Their father, Walter, is a college dropout who dreamed of becoming a journalist, but spent his life as a headline writer for a second-rate newspaper. He drinks too much and dies relatively young. On the other hand, their mother, Esther (who insists to be called ‘Pookie’), is an unstable, eccentric woman with delusions of grandeur, always keeping up appearances for appearances sake.
The couple soon gets divorced, and the girls go to live with Esther, meeting their father only on weekends. Unable to provide stability for her daughters, ‘Pookie’ moves the family constantly, always in search of a better job and a better house – and always living beyond her means.
As the girls grow, they choose different paths in life. Sarah marries young to what seemed to be a promising man. The couple settles down on his parents’ estate in Long Island, and they soon have three children. Emily, on the other hand, manages to get into Barnard College on a scholarship, and makes a career as an advertising copywriter in Manhattan. She never settles down, and moves from one failed love affair to another.
It would seem that her sister Sarah had a better luck, but her life is far different from the appearance of suburban happiness she tries to keep, with more or less success: her marriage soon starts to sour, her husband proves to be a resentful abusive man, and Sarah slowly drifts into alcoholism.
In the Grimes sisters, we have two different views of womanhood: Emily is the career woman, Sarah the housewife. Each of them sometimes wants what the other achieved, but neither of them has found fulfilment nor happiness.
I puzzled over the novel’s title many times. It refers to an event that happens when the Grimes sisters are young: Sarah has to attend an Easter Parade and Tony, her future husband, goes with her. A photograph of them appears in The New York Times: they are in love, happy, and their lives are yet to be spoiled by what awaits them in the future. For now, happiness seems possible and close at hand.
In a way or another, the two sisters go through the book as if they were caught in this one moment in the past, this Easter parade, just before they took the paths that would eventually lead to disappointment and sadness. Rather than the renewal and rebirth promised by the idea of Easter, Sarah and Emily’s lives are met with the failure of all the promises and aspirations that that one moment in the past, during the parade, had seemed to hold for them.
Your Easter Parade is not only a tale of how these two sisters grow apart, but also of how their lives end up very far away from what they expected – as if they had somehow detached themselves from that photograph, from their own selves, and were watching everything happen from the outside, with no power to interfere, and forever reaching for something that isn’t there; as if they were the ghosts of the people in the photograph, ghosts that keep being puzzled at their inability to touch anything. Or, perhaps, it’s the other way around: perhaps they are forever trapped in that Easter photograph, unwilling to move away or to grow out of it.
“For a year she found an exquisite pain – almost pleasure – in facing the world as if she didn’t care. Look at me, she would say to herself in the middle of a trying day. Look at me: I’m surviving; I’m coping; I’m in control of all this.” ―
“I know I had it – I could feel it, the way you feel blood in your veins – and now I reach for it and reach for it, and it isn’t there.” ―
“She quickly took a drink to hide her mouth. That mannerism had never changed: whenever Sarah was embarrassed, after she’d told a joke and was waiting for the laughter, or when she was afraid she’d talked too much, she would go for her mouth as if to cover nakedness – with Cokes or popsicles as a child, with drinks or cigarettes now. Maybe all the years of splayed, protruding teeth, and then of braces, had made her mouth the most vulnerable part of her for life.” ―
“She had never heard the word ‘intellectual’ used as a noun before she went to Barnard, and she took it to heart. It was a brave noun, a proud noun, a noun suggesting lifelong dedication to lofty things and a cool disdain for the commonplace. An intellectual might lose her virginity to a soldier in the park, but she could learn to look back on it with wry, amused detachment. An intellectual might have a mother who showed her underpants when drunk, but she wouldn’t let it bother her. And Emily Grimes might not be an intellectual yet, but if she took copious notes in even the dullest of her classes, and if she read every night until her eyes ached, it was only a question of time.” ―
“Emily knew she was going to cry. She tried to avert it with a childhood trick that had sometimes worked before – pressing both thumbnails hard into the tender flesh beneath the nails of her index fingers, so that the self-inflicted pain might be greater than the ache of her swelling throat – but it was no use.” ―
About the book
- Vintage Classics, 2008, 226 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4,5 stars