Cecily's Reviews > Cold Spring Harbor

Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates
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Sep 27, 09

bookshelves: american-canadian, miscellaneous-fiction
Read in September, 2009

This treads similar territory to other Richard Yates novels, though it covers a shorter period, in fewer pages, focusing on younger protagonists. As always, more is conveyed by what is unsaid than what is actually uttered (e.g. the awkward driving lesson where nothing was taught and nothing learned).

Evan Shepard is a bit of a loser who gets back on track (slightly) when he gets into cars. Nevertheless, he already has a teenage shotgun wedding, child and divorce behind him when a chance encounter with the Drakes (divorced mother, daughter Rachel and mid teen son Philip) offers the possibility of new happiness, stability and purpose.

Although the story is ostensibly about the ups and downs of Evan and Rachel's relationship, it is the lesser characters that gives this book its richness, interest and humour (e.g. Rachel's "torrentially talking mother", Gloria). The only weakness is 7 year old Kathleen, whose speech doesn't ring true.

Further depth comes from contrasts: all the characters are anxious for love and approval, conscious that they don't quite fit in anywhere - except for the wealthy aristocratic neighbour who is effortlessly at ease anywhere; Evan did too much too young, and Phil hates him for that whilst also being frustrated at being a late developer himself; Evan's father Charles' ambitions have been thwarted by visual impairment and then caring, uncomplainingly, for his psychosomatically housebound wife, so he tries to live vicariously through his son (doomed to fail), and Gloria brazenly speaks her mind, in contrast with Charles' cautious reticence.

There are some wonderful, if painful snippets: "smile at her in a way that would soon become habitual: a mixture of pity, fond teasing and readiness for love"; eating supper in silence EVERY DAY, so as not to miss a radio soap; "even their handshake was a failure"; "in this artificial household, dinner was the most oppressive event of the day", and the observation that an unpopular boy has to chase friends as if they were girls.

Intriguing trivia: it is dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut (they were friends).

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Peter Thornber I wonder whether Kathleen's speech doesn't ring true because she has yet to be spoilt in the way the other characters have been? Kathleen can speak from the heart with innocence in a way the silence and unvented frustration of others, damaged by experience, seemingly cannot. The divorce and physical separation of Kathleen and her mother from that space and relationship has offered a new beginning for the generation to come? A message for the wider society!


Cecily That's an interesting thought. Alternatively, maybe I haven't encountered enough unspoilt children!

I did wonder if Yates was unfamiliar with children, but he had three daughters and this was his last novel, so we can probably rule that out.


Peter Thornber Sorry, didn't mean 'spoilt' in the traditional sense we use in reference to children being unpleasant. I was thinking more that the trials and tribulations of adult life had yet to impact on her in the way all other characters in the book demonstrate.


Cecily Ah, right. In which case, I agree.


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