by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead, 288 pages, $27.99).
Novelist Meg Wolitzer's output has been uneven, but when she's on, she's one of the more interesting American writers today. Generally classified as a New York writer who pens novels about wealthy suburbanites, Wolitzer transcends, and at times subverts, that played-out genre with a penetrating eye for the telltale detail and a wicked gift for comedic timing.
Her last novel was The Ten-Year Nap, in which a group of women who gave up lucrative careers for full-time motherhood meet for regular breakfasts and examine how their lives, and their inner selves, have turned out. But what could have been yet another "Smart, bored women gripe about the unfairness of it all" novel instead turned into an eye-opening, often hilarious scrutiny of the intricacy of modern hetero womanhood — all while the author gently satirized the "whiny-butt" genre she employed. Think of a less self-important Margaret Atwood with better jokes.
In The Uncoupling, Wolitzer takes the reader to a town where ancient Greek theater mixes unexpectedly with events that could be either supernatural or all-too-natural. In this present-day parable, Fran Heller is the new, bohemian high school drama teacher in smallish Stellar Plains, New Jersey. She decides to direct a production of Lysistrata by Aristophanes, the classic comedy in which the women of Greece refuse to have sex with their husbands in order to stop a war. Before you know it, the women of Stellar Plains are withholding sex from the men; not to end a war, but because their libidos simply disappear, to the point that the very thought of physical intimacy becomes insufferable.
Through the author's skillfully rendered scenes, it becomes apparent that the women have been bewitched. The popular English teacher, for instance, has enjoyed a famously loving relationship with her husband, but suddenly they're on the outs. The sexy, and sexually active, guidance counselor finds that she's had all the intimacy she can stand. The teenaged star of the school's Lysistrata production lives the role to the point of putting her bed on the school's lawn to protest the war in Afghanistan.
In a complete reversal of the "gabby girlfriends" genre to which Wolitzer is too often consigned, the women of Stellar Plains don't talk about their stunning new problem, so each woman goes on with life, thinking she's the only one going through this disturbing, confusing transformation. These women gain a new kind of power, naturally, but it remains power on an individual level, unorganized, unlike the women in Lysistrata.
The spell wafts through town seemingly on its own, as Wolitzer's story is propelled by her gorgeous writing. She is particularly adept when describing the looks and lives of teenagers and their middle-aged parents.
As adolescent characters are being introduced, she writes, "The generation that had information, but no context. Craving, but no longing... with their unfinished faces, and piercings that punctured the most tender membranes of their bodies like buckshot."
When the English teacher and her husband hear tales from old people about the death of passion, Wolitzer explains, "Dory and Robby felt they were exempt from such an outcome, assuming that even when they were so old that they appeared interchangeable — even when his ankles were as narrow and hairless as hers, and her lips were as thin and collagenless as his, and their pubic hair could have belonged to Santa Claus; even when they resembled those dried-apple dolls sold in the gift shops of folk museums — they would sleep together frequently, happily, and not just gently, but with the same gruff, fierce purpose as always."
In case you're wondering, yes, after all is said and done, the spell is understood, utilized, and lifted; but I won't reveal anymore than that about the novel's outcome. How Wolitzer gets to that outcome is what's most worthwhile here. She is expert at unearthing the dynamics of sex and power between men and women, but she does it without a heavy hand, with frequent, fierce insights often flying toward the reader in the form of wisecracks or hilarious dialogue.
To most critics, Wolitzer is not first-rate literature, but that's fine — neither were Raymond Chandler nor Jane Austen in their times; plus, who cares? When a novelist can craft precise insights into social status, reveal the shared secrets of contented couples, make you laugh at yourself in an intelligent way, and, to boot, can drive a plot with Wolitzer's fervor, I'm more than happy to read and enjoy it, great lit or no. I think Wolitzer is underrated and, too often, patronized as "a woman's writer." I'd like to hear what CL readers have to say about her.