Wednesday 20 June 2018

Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates

My first experience with Yates was way back in 2012 when I read Young Hearts Crying. It was so depressing, I haven't been able to try another one until now!

I love the covers that Vintage have selected for all their Yates books, they capture the melancholy and dissatisfaction that seems to infect all of his characters in one way or another. Cold Spring Harbor was no different, although ultimately less emotionally exhausting than Young Hearts Crying.

So many hopes dashes, disillusionment and mental health issues. Media reports often comment on the rise in mental health problems in our modern world, but Yates' novel remind us that they were always there, just not diagnosed and often self-medicated with copious amounts of alcohol.

Belonging was obviously a major theme in Yates' own life that carried through into all of his novels. His parents divorced when he was four, he moved around a lot, always short of money. His mother drank too much, he was bullied at school, joined the army in WWII, became a journalist, married, had children, divorced, remarried and had another child. He also drank too much, smoked and suffered from bouts of bronchitis, tuberculosis and bi-polar behaviours, before dying at age 66 of emphysema.*

In Cold Spring Harbor we have alcoholic mothers, absent fathers, divorced families, a family who moves around a lot and is always short of money, prep school bullying and army life. Everyone seems to be living a life of quiet desperation.

'My characters all rush around trying to do their best, trying to live well within their known and unknown limitations,' Yates explains. 'Doing what they can't help doing, ultimately and inevitably failing because they can't help being the people they are.'*

It's bleak stuff, on the very edge of hopeless. As with Young Hearts Crying, I got to the end and wondered what was the point of all that angst? Did I learn anything new about human nature? Did the characters learn anything new about themselves? Was there some political or social commentary being made by the author? I think it's probably a big fat no to all of that!

Cold Spring Harbor was most likely Yates' final attempt (it was his last published book) to work out his own sad life story. I can't decide if Rachel's closing words to her new born son were a sign of hope, wish fulfilment or irony on Yates' behalf.
"Oh you little marvel," she said. "Oh you're a wonder, that's what you are. You're a miracle. Because do you know what you're going to be? You're going to be a man."

* Nick Fraser Rebirth of a Dark Genius, The Guardian 17th Feb 2008

Book 6 #20BooksofSummer (Winter)
20℃ in Sydney
16℃ in Norther Ireland


  1. I'm a Yates-devotee and while this is not his best (and I'm not sure he would have ever got to the bottom of his own torment) I reckon the last line is all about irony :-(

    Although I don't leave my Yates reading five years between books, I do space it out because he is so depressing... that said, as soon as I have finished one, I'm champing at the bit to read another. I thought Young Hearts was incredible (I read it earlier this year). Next on you list should be Easter Parade and/or Revolutionary Road.

    1. Thanks for the tip about which ones to try next. It was one of your recent reviews on Yates that made me add this to my #20books list this year.
      It's sad that so many amazing creative minds have to come from a place of such great turmoil, despair and tragedy.


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