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Over-the-Top Novel Chronicles Sex Strike in Suburbia

"The Uncoupling" by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead Hardcover, $25.95)

Meg Wolitzer's "The Uncoupling" is available now.
Meg Wolitzer's "The Uncoupling" is available now.
By Hayley C. Cuccinello, Contributing Writer

The ominously dramatic title of Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, “The Uncoupling,” is evocative of a horror thriller. The plot, which centers around a mysterious curse that causes a town’s women to shun their husbands and boyfriends sexually, might sound like the makings of horror to some. However, the story relies on introspective examination of the love lives of women rather than mystery, intrigue, or excitement. Though Wolitzer’s prose is occasionally poignant and insightful, “The Uncoupling” is a stylistic muddle of a novel. Wolitzer’s attempts to sustain elements of satire and fantasy undermine her observations about her characters and ultimately destroy any hope of relating to them. Not only does her exploration of the female experience fall flat, but her sex-centric plot offends more than it entertains.

In “The Uncoupling,” a small town in New Jersey is rocked by the arrival of a new drama teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. For her inaugural school play, she chooses “Lysistrata,” the Aristophanes comedy about women who withhold sex from their husbands to protest a war. The plot of the play coincides with the previously mentioned curse to be cast over the school’s women. As a result, the romantic relationships of both students and faculty unravel with the loss of physical intimacy. The novel, divided into three parts, alternates between several female perspectives, but focuses mainly on the viewpoint of two English teachers: Dory Lang and her perfect husband Robby, also an English teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt. Their wallflower daughter Willa struggles in her own relationship.

Though the Langs are painstakingly, cloyingly described as the golden couple of the high school’s faculty, Dory eventually manages to become a relatable protagonist. Her husband, Robby, unfortunately, remains as defined as a silhouette. He is presented as nothing more than an ideal spouse and father who misses intimacy with Dory. Most of the novel’s men suffer from similarly poor characterization. While the novel’s women are sophisticated, complicated creatures, their men are limited to two feelings: sexual satisfaction and sexual frustration. The result is a work of fiction that walks the fine line between being humorous and being politically problematic, too often straying onto the wrong side. Occasionally, Wolitzer’s jokes about the differences between men and women are successful, but too often they engender a response summarized by a man’s outcry at the school production: “We’re not all disgusting, sex-crazed warriors. And what’s wrong with what we do want? Urges are normal. What’s so bad about them? I resent this whole play.” For a novel that attempts to bring modern resonance to a classical comedy, its tone feels remarkably outdated.

The curse, which remains inexplicable for the vast majority of the novel, renders the story less intelligent and relatable. Instead of creating a sense of suspense or wonder, it vastly undermines the story. Wolitzer’s women have understandable, appropriate reasons for not having sex with their men; no frivolous plot device is needed to justify their actions. The high school’s production of “Lysistrata” is cause enough to plant the idea in the women’s heads to withhold sex from their partners. In fact, there are countless normal, non-mystical factors that might eliminate sexual desire that Wolitzer might have used instead of magic. The plot device has negative implications, insinuating that the women’s lack of desire is irrational and unnatural. In the novel’s distinctly unsatisfying ending, Wolitzer explains the origin of the curse. Its mystical cause feels silly and arbitrary, and the disclosure does not remotely mitigate the curse’s detracting effect.

Though far from redeeming “The Uncoupling,” Wolitzer’s prose can be remarkable. Dory, after reminiscing about older days, admits the thrill of new technology. She confesses that even people of her age are “excited when new, seductive electronic inventions appeared; they updated their own computers and bought their own gadgets, which they carried everywhere, enjoying the reassuring feel of an object in a pocket, and the texture of its skin-tight protective case that made it seem like it was in a condom, pulsing and fully loaded and waiting.” Her scintillating insights into the lives of ordinary people like Dory are deliciously sensual and remarkably incisive. This is where Wolitzer’s true strengths lie, not in the overwhelming plot threads and themes she attempts to juggle.

“The Uncoupling” has the ingredients for a sophisticated and entertaining read; unfortunately, Wolitzer uses too many of them. She attempts to do justice to several themes, and in doing so, she diminishes them to clichés. When student Marissa Clayborn holds a “bed-in”—which is as ridiculous as it sounds—to protest the war in Afghanistan, the natural response is a roll of the eyes, even though Clayborn’s intentions are honorable. Similarly, Dory guiltily confesses to the school psychologist, “I have the nicest husband in the world … and I’ve wrecked things. I’ve made him unhappy.” The resulting inclination is not to sympathize or identify with the struggling spouse but instead wish that she was less spineless. Wolitzer’s competing intentions—to carefully examine the lives of ordinary women, but also assert lofty opinions about war, sex, and technology—renders the novel unsophisticated and unfocused, removing layers of meaning instead of adding them.

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