Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates

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It was Reading Matters’ recent review┬áthat was the impetus for reading this 1986 book written by the author of the better known Revolutionary Road. It begins with Charles Shepard’s disappointment that the war ends just as he arrives in Europe in 1918. He stays in the army until it’s clear his deteriorating eyesight has limited his career. His wife does not thrive, and after giving birth to a son, depends on her husband to care for her, especially to be sure she has food and alcohol.

Their son Evan and his disappointments continue the story; his marriage to a pregnant girlfriend doesn’t last long and he doesn’t seem motivated to make his way to engineering school. Father and son happen to meet a divorced woman named Grace Drake who lives in Manhattan with her 20-year-old daughter Rachel and teenage son Phil. She is quite taken with the nice Mr. Shepard and is particularly impressed that he lives in Cold Spring Harbor; the three drink themselves through a pleasant afternoon. Grace turns out to be Miss Bates from Emma with a drinking problem and social ambition.

The families are then connected by the marriage of Evan and Rachel who quickly falls pregnant. By this point in the story Pearl Harbor has been bombed and the both father and son are disappointed that neither is accepted into the army. The spotlight turns for a time to teenage Phil who is home from boarding school for the summer, just in time for the move engineered by his mother to what she hopes will be a more genteel life in Cold Spring Harbor. Phil gets himself a job that pays very little, but gives him some independence.

Though the book is clearly set in its time of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the characters’ interactions seem timeless. Their unfortunate choices and their reactions to their own limitations are set in a particular time, and so play out in a particular way, but grow out of universal human failings.

I prefer books that show the author’s love for the characters, however flawed they are. Nevertheless, they became real and important enough to me that I was sorry when the book ended.

Richard Yates, Cold Spring Harbor, Delacorte Press, 1986, 182 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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