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.

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