Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Review: The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

It's been about a hundred years since I read Lysistrata in college and I remember very little about it now but the idea of the play causing modern women, young and old, in suburban Stellar Plains, New Jersey to eschew sex with their husbands and boyfriends, is certainly an intriguing one. In the play, Lysistrata exhorts the women of the town to forgo sex as a way to force the men to stop a war but here, the girls and women affected by the play's spell don't consciously choose to stop sleeping with their men, they are overcome with a disturbing lack of desire.

Opening with a glimpse into the contented, long-term, and still quite sexually active marriage of Dory and Robby Lang, two high school English teachers with a teenaged daughter, the novel lays out their history together and takes them to the brink of the moment that Dory, overcome by the cold wind of the play's spell, first denies Robby in bed, lying about her sudden lack of desire. As the spell blows through the town, whistling through the lives of the women and stealing away any desire for intimacy they have, no one discusses this strange phenomenon. And no woman connected to the high school and the play escapes the unsettled discontent that accompanies this sudden lack in interest in the opposite sex except the new drama teacher.

Some women, like Dory, attribute it to their age and the diminished sexual drive that comes with it. Others, like Leanne, the guidance counselor who is in several relationships at once, chalk it up to worry about others considering her promiscuous. Marissa, the girl cast as Lysistrata, decides that since sex has never been all that interesting to her, she's done with boys. Bev, the college counselor, hurt by her husband's comment about her weight, backs away from him in bed. Willa, Dory and Robby's daughter, breaks up with Eli, her boyfriend, knowing that the excitement and desire they have as high schoolers will never last given their different trajectories in life. And there are more. But these revelations about why they are no longer interested in sex are all driven not by self-awareness, but by the magic of the Lysistrata play's cold wind spell.

Intended to be an examination of women's body image, desirability, control of themselves, complacency, and social perceptions using Lysistrata, the novel gives short shrift to the idea of political activism as personal also put forward in the play. The men's reactions to the dry spell instigated by the women are not well explored; in fact, they seem almost incidental. While the underlying idea of the novel is appealing, in practice, it didn't quite come off. The initial look at relationships, in their different intensities and stages, was entertaining but then they dragged on a bit too long without giving any particularly new insights into women's sexuality or desire. And the end of the novel is abrupt and oddly unsatisfying. Perhaps trying to balance the philosophical ideas contained in the idea of abstinence and self-worth and still keep the story fairly light in tone was just too much. Not Wolitzer's best but not bad either; a quick read, the novel was just a bit flat, unfortunately missing that spark that makes for a fantastic tale.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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