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Thursday, December 1, 2011

"A Special Providence", the wars of Richard Yates

A Special Providence- Richard Yates

I believe Richard Yates is one of the best writers the world has had. So it’s no surprise “A Special Providence” is a very good book. But there’s a problem: it’s written by Richard Yates. With an author like him, you don’t expect just a very good book. You expect greatness. And in that sense, this work is a minor piece.

Of course, a minor piece from Yates is still better than 75-80% of the books you’ll read on a year. His masterful prose, always focused and powerful, flows without any superficiality or unnecessary ornament while it touches you deeply (Yates is, in my opinion, one of a handful writers able to destroy you completely when you immerse yourself in his prose without forcing any dramatic spring). But with “A Special Providence” he only achieves on less than half of the book.

What Yates attempts with this book is intertwining two stories that are depending on each other, on what it seems a quite autobiographical work (and poignant, very personal demons). One is Robert Prentice’s life as a soldier in the II World War, drafted after being graduated from high school. Yates runs from any of the usual heroic portraits of the soldier, the camaraderie or any supposed value the army has. Instead he draws a grey picture of logical incompetence, confusion (he aims to be an illustrated, smarter than average soldier), and growing frustration as the desired glory or honour he seeks never arrives, with a final turn towards a sort of despondent resignation.

The other is Alice Prentice’s, his mother, tale of misery, impossible dreams to fulfill and the need to keep cheating herself. The clash between social and artistic aspirations and the depressing reality is (Yates’ trademark) merciless and absorbing. We suffer her economic burdens, we hurt with Alice’s idealisation of plans that are pending of a very thin line, and we feel devastated when they finally crumble. In a way the two stories are pretty similar, their aspirations and their place in the world is equally elusive and cruel for them. But there’s no balance between the two. I found Alice’s part much more absorbing and compelling. Maybe is because the army and war have been used as a topic too many times in literature, and despite Yates unheroic approach it is not very original. Or maybe, the blurred character Robert is makes it too distant for the reader to emphasize with.

As anything coming from Richard Yates, I will definitely recommend you to read “A Special Providence”. Just don’t expect to find another “Revolutionary Road” or “The Easter Parade”.

SCORE: 6,5/10

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