Thursday, June 2, 2011

Meg Wolitzer imagines a sexual strike.

Meg Wolitzer’s novel is a kind of fantasy, but it is an intriguing one. At the same time, it is a trenchant analysis of suburban life.

The Uncoupling

Meg Wolitzer’s The Uncoupling (288 pages, Riverhead, $25.95) has a very simple premise. When a new drama teacher comes to a suburban New Jersey high school and decides to produce Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, all the women of the school, and eventually of the town, decide to stop having sex.

In Aristophanes’s play, the women go on sexual strike because they want to put an end to the seemingly-endless war in which Athens has been involved. They use the sexual trump card as a way of showing everyone how urgently their voices need to be heard.

In the town in which the novel is set, the effect at first is almost hard to notice. A “spell” comes over some women who have had perfectly happy sex lives, and they decide to stop having sex with their partners then and there.

Wolitzer uses this motif to allow her to look into the sexual worlds of various women. Four are of particular interest. One high school English teacher, happily married to another teacher in the department, has a perfectly good sexual relationship with her husband. Dory and Robby, as they are known, are the secret envy of their friends because of how unproblematic their lives seem. When Dory decides “no more sex,” their relationship becomes instantly more complicated.

Their daughter too, a quiet and self-absorbed redhead, is experiencing her first love affair, with the egg-head son of the drama teacher. She too shuts it down suddenly, and the pain that results is almost more than the drama teacher had bargained for.

Another woman, a beautiful and petite Indian named Leanne Banerjee, seems to take pleasure in having a number of suitors at one time, and even she finds suddenly that this is grotesque and she must give all her men their walking papers.

Finally, there's the gym-teacher and her stay-at-home artist husband, who with twins and a toddler, barely make time for their own sexual dates. They too have to accommodate a new sexual availability that shakes their marriage at its core.

All this sexual resistance allows Wolitzer to take a hard look at the suburban culture that fascinates her, and if it all sounds a bit hokey from this angle, I can assure you that it generates some real interest as it proceeds.

It all comes to a climax, of course, when Lysistrata is staged. But what happens there, and what happens when the characters are recovering from that event, is important enough for me not to reveal in this review. I can say, though, that the ending is very powerful.

I recommend this novel, as strange as it is, both for the strangeness and for the very rich satire of contemporary life it offers.

Meg Wolitzer

The Uncoupling is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Donna Leon tackles sexual abuse in her new Guido Brunetti

If you take reading recommendations, like I do, from Marilyn Stasio’s crime fiction column in the New York Times Book Review, then you will have happened upon Donna Leon’s mysteries before now. This is my first, however, and I am happy to see that there are eleven earlier novels with the same central characters.

Drawing Conclusions

Donna Leon’s latest Guido Brunetti mystery, Drawing Conclusions (256 pages, Atlantic Monthly Press, $24), deals with the death of an elderly widow in her quiet Venice apartment. She is discovered by an upstairs neighbor who has returned from holiday. This neighbor finds her body when she enters the apartment looking for her mail. Something tells her to call the police, rather than the hospital, and Brunetti happens to be nearby and was therefore the first to examine the body.

He also suspects there is something more than meets the eye. The coroner won’t commit himself either way, but he says just enough to leave Brunetti with the conclusion that a murder has been committed.

The dead woman’s son, a veterinarian from somewhere outside Venice, is rather closed when Brunetti questions him; and although he might not be hiding anything, he is really giving nothing away, either.

Brunetti also finds his way to an old age home, and there he interviews several
elderly men and women whom the deceased had spent time with before her death. She went regularly to the home to give these people companionship and someone to talk to. And while they may have talked to her, Brunetti has trouble getting anything out of them. Eventually, he gets enough, however, to lead him in another direction, which although promising at first, ends up at a dead end.

Leon is wonderful at creating a kind of Venetian sensibility, and we are party to Brunetti's endless unkind judgments about people from other parts of Italy. In his sometime supercilious-seeming Venetian manner, he also rubs folks from the south the wrong way too. That happens when he tries to question an elderly woman whose husband has requested that she have no visitors. Brunetti finds that his attempts to calm the husband lead to a hot-headed telling off, but in the process he begins to understand something that none of his questioning has enabled him to understand before.

Leon fills her narrative with the sights, sounds, and smells of Venice; and she brings in a rich range of secondary characters who enhance her tale and give it substance. She has a deft had at a mystery, and she brings everything together at the end with a satisfying swagger.

There is good reason why these Guido Brunetti mysteries are popular. Leon can tell a great story, and she has one of the most wonderful settings in the world.

Donna Leon

Drawing Conclusions is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.