From the New York Times -bestselling author of The Ten-Year Nap, a funny, provocative, revealing novel about female desire.
When the elliptical new drama teacher at Stellar Plains High School chooses for the school play Lysistrata -the comedy by Aristophanes in which women stop having sex with men in order to end a war-a strange spell seems to be cast over the school. Or, at least, over the women. One by one throughout the high school community, perfectly healthy, normal women and teenage girls turn away from their husbands and boyfriends in the bedroom, for reasons they don't really understand. As the women worry over their loss of passion, and the men become by turns unhappy, offended, and above all, confused, both sides are forced to look at their shared history, and at their sexual selves in a new light.
As she did to such acclaim with the New York Times bestseller The Ten-Year Nap, Wolitzer tackles an issue that has deep ramifications for women's lives, in a way that makes it funny, riveting, and totally fresh-allowing us to see our own lives through her insightful lens.
Read an essay about writing The Uncoupling from the author, Meg Wolitzer.
Meg Wolitzer is the New York Times–bestselling author of The Interestings, The Uncoupling, The Ten-Year Nap, The Position, The Wife, and Sleepwalking. She is also the author of the young adult novel Belzhar. Wolitzer lives in New York City.
I am so over Meg Wolitzer. My three novel study, read in under two weeks, rendered me in turn unable to stay awake during the day, unable to sleep at night, unable to digest my food, and generally irritable all over. She is simply a bad writer and I cannot fathom how she gets even one good review, though she gets many.
What she does do well is capture and relate the thoughts women have privately as well as the commonplace emotions of women. It is true that we only share those thoughts and feelings privately, even with other women. Possibly despite feminism, consciousness raising and even the age of confessional memoir, we are most of us somewhat ashamed to think or feel as we do. So to read our thoughts and feelings in a novel is startling and comforting at the same time.
In The Uncoupling, a new drama teacher arrives at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Stellar Plains, New Jersey. Fran Heller is unconventional in dress, attitude and lifestyle. Supposedly she has a husband living in Michigan with whom she is still very much in love. They talk everyday and visit each other several times a year. Their teenage son lives with Fran during the school year and with his father in the summer.
Fran chooses for the school play a Greek comedy by Aristophanes. In "Lysistrata" the women agree to stop having sex with men until the endless Peloponnesian War is over. On the day that auditions open, an enchantment, accompanied by cold winds, comes over several women, rendering them suddenly undesireous of sex. As the weeks of rehearsal pass more and more females, including sexually active teens, give up sex. The denied men become variously confused, heart broken, frustrated, or openly angry.
It takes her about 100 pages to set all this in place and despite the ineptly contrived back stories, some improbable characters and tone deaf dialogue, I was intrigued. The next 100 pages were a punishing description of how all the women and men interacted, felt, and made unsuccessful attempts to communicate about what was happening.
I will concede that the teen characters were accurately, even humorously, almost sympathetically portrayed. I can appreciate that Meg Wolitzer has a keen eye for people of all ages and both sexes as well as an accurate finger on the pulse of modern society. She just can't write well about most of it.
Reading Wolitzer is like taking a ride with a bad driver. Her prose is uneven. She will write a stunning metaphor and then fall into the oddest, nausea producing imagery. After pages of plodding paragraphs, she will finally get a bit of drama going, only to let it fall flat. I am always aware that any given character is an example of a type, until I utterly fail to care about what happens to any of them.
After tantalizing references to the war in Afghanistan, to teenage sexual awareness and dependence on social networking plus texting, or to the loss of sexual interest amongst married middle-aged couples, she winds up her story of dubious enchantment with platitudes. Give me a break!
Meg Wolitzer's writing skirts the line between literary fiction and beach read. On one hand, she has a clever eye for human thought and folly that makes me look forward to her books. On the other hand, her plots are often novel and neatly wrapped up in a way that undermines whatever effort she puts into character building.
The same praise and criticism applies to The Uncoupling. However, it does have a truly terrible climax (appropriate for a book with a lot of fail sex) that is so cheesy it belongs in YA. In fact, it was done recently in YA. Have you read Will Grayson, Will Grayson? It's sort of like the end of that book, but with adults. Adults are spontaneously emoting onstage at a high school play. Except they're doing it to break a magical spell that keeps them from having sex with each other. And this works.
I kept Ms. Wolitzer's name on my mental backburner for several months now...not necessarily because of the recent release of her The Interestings (which three of my Goodreads friends have already read and favorably reviewed) but because of her jacket blurb endorsement on the back of Nicholson Baker's "Book of Raunch" (aka House of Holes...and I'm all like "yeah! she loves bad porn! Gotta read her pronto!" Unless sales go through the roof, it's doubtful my little library's gonna get The Interestings anytime soon, so figured I'd take a look-see at the e-book version of her prior novel, The Uncoupling...then realized that I put this book way deep-er in my memory bank, thanks to my fellow Goodreaders' 2.82-star cume average of it. (YIKES!) My curiosity won out, though.
Ms. Wolitzer's charming feminist parable definitely deserves more love than a 2.82. Yeah, the ending is cheezy (and YA-esque, as one of my friends aptly observed), the flights of fancy Ms. Wolitzer takes are corny, but there was just so much I did like about this book that made me totally ignore its faults:
Quirky Premise! Stellar Fields, NJ's females, subsequent to its High School's announcement of the drama department's staging a production of Aristophanes' Lysistrata are betaken by a spell that causes their male counterparts to fall out of sexual favor. (whoa!)
Great Plot and Character Development! Using the aforementioned (Eleanor Roosevelt) High School as a nexus, Ms. Wolitzer rolls out a handful of indelible characters: Robby and Dory (the married English teachers who are also the most popular teachers at school); Senor Mandelbaum ("the unusually lenient Spanish teacher"); Leanne Bannerjee, (the school psychologist, who dispenses pearls of wisdom to the students as well as safe sex tips, while being Staff Slut away from campus); Abby Means, (the unhinged math teacher that busts a gasket when you take her Diet Splurge from the staff refrigerator, and may possibly be afflicted with Aspergers') etc. etc....coupled with:
An Exquisite (and hilarious) Eye (and, even, Nose) For Details: like how the Math Teacher's foods stored in the staff refrigerator transmogrify into "vingegar douche"-smelling things, or how Robby and Dory's mutual perspiration takes on a chicken brothy-smell...perfect. _________________________________
I could go on and on, page after page of just hysterical observations, poignant dialog...which kept me laughing, and devouring pages, and...yeah, it's not entirely certain where Ms. Wolitzer was going with this, or if she was making a larger societal statement, but I kinda almost don't care.
The Uncoupling may not be quite as interesting as The Interestings but I for one can't wait to read more by this author. I encourage you, if you liked The Interestings please don't be dissuaded by the 2.82 rating for this book like I initially was.
The Uncoupling is a good book that could have been a great book.
It has some perceptive and provocative insights into the nature of desire itself: what is desire, anyway? How does it change between the heady times of first love and the more mundane times of adulthood? Can a relationship sustain itself when desire flees?
The book unfolds around the classic and comic play Lysistrata, written by Aristophanes – a tale of women of Greece who determined to withhold sex as a way to end the lengthy Peloponnesian War. Around the same time that the new drama teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School chooses the play, the women of Stellar Plains, New Jersey mysteriously and suddenly turn from their husbands, boyfriends, and lovers, no longer wanting to engage in sex.
The “stunning bolt of cold air” -- which is the harbinger for the lack of desire – the enchantment and spell – is somewhat evocative of Alice Hoffman’s writing. One by one, the women succumb to it – Dory Lang, who suddenly begins making excuses to her cherished spouse…Bev, an overweight guidance counselor who is smarting over a careless weight-focused remark by her husband…Leanne, a beautiful and definitely non-monogamous school psychologist who loses all interest…Ruth, the ex-lesbian gym teacher and harried young mother who feels sex has become an obligatory date…and last of all, Willa, Dory’s daughter, who is the throes of first love.
Had The Uncoupling focused on the question asked by Bev ( “I keep thinking, how did this happen? For a long time, it wasn’t like this) or Leanne (“”Is the choice in life to either have some overly intense and basically impractical relationships with men or else to settle down?”) or even the musings of Dory (“”Maybe sex doesn’t even belong to us anymore. It belongs mostly to the kids, and we’re just hanging around too long”), this might have been a stronger book.
But Ms. Wolitzer chooses to go with a magical realism overlay, distancing the reader from the characters and adding a layer of comedy to the very real issues of adults and teenager struggling to maintain intimacy in the wake of young family obligations, perimenopause, and day-to-day stresses. The boundaries of believability are stretched at the end in ways that will become apparent to a new reader. The Uncoupling is built upon an irresistible premise and written in a breezy tone that somehow, falls a little flat.
I liked the details Wolitzer used to describe her characters (I perked up whenever the picky and prickly Abby Means, she of the thrift store skirts and pornography-filled phone, showed up), but their lack of depth and, for the most part, drive, made this book a real drag to get through. The fairy-tale-ish, wishy-washy tone, coupled with the one-dimensional characters, was frustrating to me, because the book didn't seem grounded in reality. I don't mind magical realism at all, and in fact enjoy it in a lot of books, but the realism half wasn't apparent here.
The major problem I had with the characters was that they were passive: the spell acted upon them, and then they sank like stones and failed to do anything interesting. The women despaired. The men despaired. Same thing over and over. They attempted to fix the problem in predictable ways but it didn't work. Boring. Very boring. The energy in the book picked up with Marissa's chapter, in which her asexuality does turn into something active, not passive, and then finally, the play was actually staged, but other than that, this book was a sluggish book that failed to engage me
It wasn't nearly as meditative or complex as I had thought it'd be in terms of exploring issues of sexuality, asexuality, or celibacy. The heavy-handed ending just made me feel manipulated, just as the characters were. Lysistrata was just an excuse to use these characters as puppets, but the play itself is a far more worthwhile read.
Pre-reading comments: I won a copy of this through First Reads, and while waiting for it to arrive, I'm brushing up on my Lysistrata. I've been part of a performance of it but hadn't really read it with patience or depth (though I certainly remember a lot of the dirty innuendos). I'm looking forward to reading this.
Note: I received a review copy of this book for free from the publisher via the First Reads program here at Goodreads.
It's become clear to me that I appreciate an author who is able to portray characters in an intimate, unpolished and relatable way and I happen to think Wolitzer excels at this. You can pick at her heavy-handed plot development which certainly will not have you confused as to what is going on or where it is headed-but I don't mind that because it makes it an effortless read. She has a good handle on (at least in my opinion) teen lingo and the age of electronics and, as she says, all things "fast paced". The premise is unquestionably interesting-unless you are too young. If you are too young I doubt you will appreciate it much. You have to have a bit of wisdom to find this engaging. Otherwise-YAWN. I get it. But, if you've been around to see the various stages of relationships- and the various character of each to begin with, then I think this will peak your interest. Maybe it will make you laugh to read about married life. Maybe you will nod here and there. Personally-I found it pretty funny. You have to be in the mood to "tolerate" the hints at magical realism. I never mind these but clearly it drives some people crazy. People have such different tastes after all and it almost makes me think reviews are pointless without some background on who is doing the reviewing.
Meg Wolitzer has a way of packing intelligence and humor into every sentence. I have to admit, I'm a longtime fan. Follow the citizens of the suburban town of Stellar Plains, New Jersey, as they stumble through the "dilemma" of their uncoupling. The pace is relentless. Wolitzer dives into her subject by writing full, deep characters. I felt like they were all my new best friends. You'll laugh, think, and notice -- through her laser sharp eye -- the absurd details of modern life, as if you were watching people who dwell on another planet that you didn't realize you live on. Whether she's inside the teacher's room at the high school, or in the basement with teenagers who are fumbling around with sex, it's an itch-scratching romp of excruciating exactness. There's no predictable cynicism and no TV jokes. She does it by telling it like it is; how does she do that? I dunno. She's an artist at the height of her craft. I highly recommend this book. It's a joyful read, all about sex -- no easy task.
This book could have been amazing but it ended up just being half-baked. Wolitzer's characters, as always, are interesting and sharply observed, but the plot didn't quite work for me. The "spell" just seems like a deus ex machina, and the half-hearted explanation of it at the end felt tacked-on and unconvincing. And the theme of the book could have been better explored if the spell had not been a literal magic spell but a zeitgeist or a conscious political movement. A disappointment.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
This novel was readable, but the author's humorous, somewhat cynical distance from her characters kept me at a distance too. But there is some good writing there. The scenes of teenage Willa and her first boyfriend were poignant and evocative of my own teen insecurities. Bev's hurt at her husband's callous statement about her weight was also well done. Unfortunately, the main characters, Dory (?) and Rob, rang the least true. They had almost no personalities except to be nice, if somewhat judgmental, people. They run into trouble in a big hurry when Dory's desire for sex is magically taken away. So were they really that solid? Or maybe just not aware of what drove their relationship?
There were some pieces of writing that jogged me out of the story as I was beginning to get comfortable: for example, the dog that licked itself into lassitude regularly and didn't need anyone else to satisfy it. Sorry, but I just don't want or need to think about my dog's masturbatory life. Yuck. The theme of how people connect, or don't online these days felt trite and stereotypical, but maybe that was the point?
I sped along through the book as I read it, but didn't need to pick it up once I put it down. And I wasn't satisfied with the look at sex as part of relationship, since the spell fell indicriminately on on those who didn't deserve to have this happen to them. The male characters didn't come off in a way that made me feel empathy or compassion for them. The author's intermittent mockery of every single character left me feeling like I shouldn't care about any of them too much, and drew me out of the book.
Once upon a time... On a dark and stormy night…wait--there was no storm. Long ago and far away…but, it was only a few years ago, and not far if you live in suburban New Jersey. So, one dark and December night in the safe and tidy suburb of Stellar Plains, New Jersey, an arctic chill seeped under doors, a frigid blast blew through windows, and a glacial nipping swirled between the sheets of spouses and lovers. And, just as suddenly, the woman turned from their men, and stopped having sex.
A spell had been cast, unbeknownst to the enchanted. Married woman turned in disgust from their husbands, and teen girls recoiled from their pimply boyfriends. The town was in chaos, but nobody was talking.
At the start of the new school year, the new bohemian and canny drama teacher, Fran Heller, had come to teach at Eleanor Roosevelt High School (Elro), where much of the action takes place. She was staging a production of Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play written by Aristophanes. And, in case you aren’t familiar with it, it is about an entire city of woman that resolves to stop having sex with their men in order to end the Peloponnesian War. That includes their favorite position—The Lioness on The Cheese Grater. Yeah, think about it! This extraordinary mission inflames the battle between the sexes in Athens, just as the suburban spell provokes a war between the mates in Stellar Plains.
Dory and Robby Lang, the central couple of the book, are spirited English teachers at Elro with a high approval rating with students. Until this spell, the Langs had a youthful vigor and robust sex life. Their sophomore daughter Willa, who Dory has deemed “conventional” (average), had found first love with Eli, the drama teacher’s son. But things are now frigid in the soundless fury of their house. Only their old lazy dog lingers to lick himself clean.
The Nordic, big-boned gym teacher, Ruth, had a largely healthy sex life with her sculptor husband—as active as one can expect with twin toddlers and an infant—all boys. She was not immune from the “enchantment,” either. Then there is Bev, a stout and menopausal woman with her hedge fund husband, Ed, who had said some cruel things to her not long ago. The spell has her in its grip, and she is fighting back frisky.
Does Leanne Bannerjee, the hot school psychologist, go on an icy sex strike when the wind chill factor blows her way? She has three boyfriends and a love life that rivals her students.
Wolitzer’s prose is gusty and cinematic, immaculate from start to finish, with well-considered, write-‘em-down one-liners and irrepressible, lucid characters. The voice and style are similar to Tom Perotta, but with a more whimsical moral thrust. The spell’s chaos must reach some conclusion, and this is where the reader enjoys sliding into the ice.
This is a domestic comedy/drama with some acid moments, some poignant insights, and a sprinkling of the psychology of love, coupling, and married life. To enjoy this book, it helps to be flexible about a few unrealistic elements present in a contemporary, earth-bound setting.
This is warm Wolitzer on ice, with a few Mazurkas and a double lutz finale. She did employ a risky contrivance, but it was an active choice, not a slack trick of the pen. Along the way, she demonstrates fine regard to our tech-savvy, digitally addicted society. A delicious sorbet book, this is sly chick-lit that pricks—and puts a spell on you.
When a famous feminist author came to Reed College in the late 1970s, the men of Reed College learned that among her teachings was the notion that "hetero-sex is violence", and it was clear that some of our dreams for our sophomore year were not going to come true. Texts matter, and when, in Meg Wolitzer's "The Uncoupling", a high school drama teacher decides to stage Aristophane's Lysistrata, in which women of ancient Greece stage a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian war, we are once again in the place where ideas and texts have the power to change relationships, and, perhaps, the world.
One way to write any story is to imagine a world that is just like ours, except that one small thing is missing. For example, oranges. Or gasoline. Or prepositions. Or the letter "e", as in the case of La Disparition ("The Disappearance"), a 300-page French lipogrammatic novel by Georges Perec.
Or, you can imagine a world in which women, mysteriously (to them, and to the reader) lose interest in sex with their male partners. As an author, you pull the single thread of female desire for men out of the tapestry of life and you watch what unravels.
What you get in this case is a knife cutting through the strata of a suburban high school community, laying bare the inner realities of heterosexual relationships of many qualities and types. Sex, here, is the subject, to be sure, but it is also the veil that, when removed, creates a window through the skin of society. We are not shown everything about the many couples who populate this world, but we are shown the diversity of their loving and boring and thriving and dying heterosexual relationships, and the unraveling that occurs when the female partner experiences no desire and sex vanishes. Even though the women of this book are "infected" by the loss of desire, victims of a spell that none have any awareness of, some choose to claim the loss and to transform their new loss of interest in, even their revulsion for, the advances of their men, into their power.
The Lysistrata becomes real, Peloponnesia becomes modern Afghanistan, and the sexual becomes political. In this Lysistrata the women and men are no obscure Greek abstractions, but recognizable moderns, homosuburbius, wrapped in a dozen different familiar personal struggles. Hilarity ensues, of a dark kind, and if the political meaning of the chaotic dénouement is a little muddled, well, we had a nice ride through modern suburbia anyway. This is the story of the ambivalent pleasures of indifference, and the power that comes from not needing.
Wolitzer's imagining is well written, with particularly sensitive and thoughtful characterizations of the sexual lives of adolescents, female and male, as they stumble their way through first encounters and toward sexual and emotional self-awareness. She sets their experiences in contrast to the desires of protagonists in their 30s, 40s and 50s, yet draws women of all ages together in their common experience of loss of interest in men, and their shared wrestling with the place of men in their lives.
How would this story be different if it were the men who lost interest? I suppose that's another book.
I really want to like this book. I read it in just 3 days, so I guess that says something. But I didn't love it. I didn't find any of the characters compelling or particularly likeable (not that that's a problem for me: on the contrary, I love unlikeable characters. Case in point: The Descendants). Willa? Eh. The Dorys? Annoying. Bev? She's fat. Waah. Leanne? Wow she sleeps around what a whore. Nothing new here. The only character I liked a little bit was Ruth Winik, the ex-lesbian of sorts. But then her boundary issues came out of nowhere. It seemed like Wolitzer was stretching to make up all of the possible reasons women wouldn't want to have sex anymore. This book was strange, and made me feel kind of sad. The writing was good in some places, but the whole wishy-washy style of it, the slow spread of the spell, irritated and bored me to tears. And the magical ending? Come on. Fran. Give me a break. And so much for resolution for Willa and Eli! The more I write about this book, the more frustrated I am.
On the whole, an interesting read, an interesting idea, but not a whole lot to it, I suppose. Not my favorite thing I've read all summer.
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer is an examination of love, sex, and relationships, and while the majority of the novel is planted in reality, there are aspects of magic and mysticism which make the book what it is. The writing is astute and well realized, and the characters are distinct and authentic. However, perhaps the plot is too meandering, therefore feeling slow. Ultimately I think this novel suffered from a case of "Thoughtful and well written, but with nothing actually happening." I enjoyed the surprise at the end, but I could have done with a few more elements of surprise to have maintained my interest throughout.
Even though I have not yet read the Lysistrata, I have trouble resisting literature about literature, especially when the premise sounds so incredibly fascinating. The Uncoupling focuses primarily on the spell's effects upon one family, Dory, Robby and Willa Lang. Dory and Robby, in their early forties, seem to have the perfect married relationship, still keeping their sex life going and pleasurable. That is until the day the spell strikes and Dory goes cold. This spell is entirely terrifying, as it is not a voluntary choice not to have sex, as in Lysistrata but a sudden complete lack of interest for the women.
The story was a treat: well-written, simple and clever. The Uncoupling follows the narrative arc of a comedic play, quite fittingly. The cast of assembled characters go about their days, unaware of the larger scope of things until the dramatic climax (the performance of the play). Then follows the dénouement, in which we see the lives of those leftover in the happy (?) ending.
I also greatly enjoyed the magical realism aspect of the story, the fact that the spell, as it is called, was magic of a sort but also very natural. Unsurprisingly, I also adored the fact that the magic stemmed from literature. Great books can come alive in people's lives, even if it's not necessarily as overt as it was in the case of this little town. I will definitely be adding more Meg Wolitzer to my reading list!
While I have at least 2 more Meg Wolitzer books sitting on my bookshelves, Uncoupling is the first I've read by her. Wow! I don't quite know why I haven't read any Wolitzer sooner - if her other books are anything like this one. I like the writing style of the book. It's descriptive without being flowery. It's explanatory without preaching. In short, it's smart. I was trying to compare the style of this book to others, and I kept coming up a bit short. She's sort of like Judy Blume - but not really. I sensed strains of Nick Hornby - but not exactly. Could there be some David Levithan (without LGBT themes) - yes, but... Ultimately, I did really enjoy the book. My issues with it have more to do with technical aspects of teaching, which the non-teacher reader won't even realize - however, the description of the staff room refrigerator was spot - on (smell and all). Ultimately, I ended up classifying this as magical realism because, well, you have to suspend disbelief. However, looking at it more deeply, there truly is a commentary about society in there. The climax of the novel was hysterical funny and wrought with emotion at the same time. Overall, a great read (IMHO)
When I first started reading The Uncoupling, I was hooked. Wolitzer has a way of painting such vivid scenes just by using the choicest of words or phrases, and she seemed to also be creating such complex characters. I was immediately emotionally vested in Dory and Robby and their marriage, and continued to be pulled in by the rather vast cast of characters. Unfortunately, things then began to fall apart. My biggest disappointment was that, what started out strong went out with a whimper. The book felt gimmicky, and I couldn't shake the sense that Wolitzer got right up to the edge of creating a really compelling novel, but then just couldn't quite find the momentum to take it over. Instead, the entire narrative ends up falling really short. Some spoilers ahead.
This is a shame, because Wolitzer is really scratching the surface of some interesting themes here, and this book could have been such a strong exploration of the lives of women at various stages of life, and what drives them. Sure, this is a book about sex, but it's also a book that offers up some other themes that are just as deep, but then fails to deliver on them. We have Dory's sense of fatigue with the sameness of her marriage. We have Bev's body issues. We have the gym teacher's sense that her body belongs to everyone but her, that nothing is really hers and hers alone. I really liked all of these themes, and I desperately wanted to see them fully developed, but they never were. Instead, we get a deus ex machina (appropriate, I suppose, since this book centers around the performance of an ancient Greek comedy) and everything seems magically resolved.
I was also very disappointed in Fran's reaction at the end. It would have been a nicely done bit of poetic justice, but I never cared enough about Fran to feel much of anything about the way her plan backfired. It was also difficult for me to figure out what motivated her to go from town to town staging the play, and I think this is because Wolitzer was rather vague about this aspect. Does Fran do it because she wants to help people? It sort of sounds like that, but not entirely. Does she do it just because she can? It also sort of sounds like that.
My other big issue with the novel was that there was a whole lot of telling but not as much showing. We're explicitly told that the gym teacher feels like she has nothing for herself, but not given many examples of it. Instead, we see her one time in the kitchen where she starts out happy but them immediately becomes dissatisfied. I just could not buy this. Was she actually growing more and more discontent all along and this simply didn't come through? Had Wolitzer spent a little more time establishing this character, that sort of question would have been answered.
When I think about summarizing the book succinctly, I'd say it comes across as an outline. It's as if Wolitzer had a list of various types of dissatisfaction and then she created characters who fit the molds. They were then inserted into the story, with a little bit of narrative, and that was that. While I did find Dory to be well-developed, the other characters felt to me more like types than like actual people.
Finally, I really, strongly disliked the ending. The tone of the novel was so serious in general, and the misery of these women (particularly Dory) was so extreme that it felt kind of insulting to give it an after school special sort of ending. Yes, I did want a happy ending for Dory, but I wanted there to be some exploration, some change that led to it. There was none of this. Instead, the spell is broken, the men all get up on stage to profess their love, and that's the end. It's a disappointing final note to a disappointing novel.
(This really deserves 3, 3.5 - I will explain). The Talmud speaks about a time when, because temptation was so strong, leaders prayed that the stirrings of desire would be taken away and allow people to live freely and purely. However, upon the vanishing of the more basic components of the human experience, life as we know it - animal, plant - shriveled up as well. This lesson resonated then, and was called to mind upon reading this work which, like Wolitzer's others, presents an interesting if somewhat ambiguous nouveau feminist bend. The Uncoupling takes on a premise that, were it any other author I would have promptly eschewed in that there is a magic spell (two words that are enough to send me packing) that overtakes a small town when the new drama teacher directs her high school students in Lysistrata, a Greek play depicting women refusing their husbands so as to stop war. Instantly, the girls and women of this town feel an inner coldness and begin to turn away as well, leading to all kinds of interesting questions as to feminism, power, intimacy and the role it plays in relationships. Wolitzer, to me, is what Piccoult wishes she were. Here are artfully crafted details without seeming to try too hard. Here is an understanding of teenagers without sounding like a forty year old person trying painfully to speak street. And this is why, despite a too neat ending and an unclear message, I am granting this work four stars - because I picked it up Wednesday morning and by evening I had finished it and enjoyed just relishing in her easy but thoughtful prose, and the quiet whimsy of her characters. I therefore give this credit for being highly readable, if somewhat dubious in ultimate execution.
I think Wolitzer had a really hard time reining herself in. I'm working off the assumption that the blunt-eccentric-but-weirdly-wise (also, callous b!tch, but that's another problem) magical drama teacher, Fran Heller, is the author-avatar here. But even taking that as a given, it's difficult to peel back the layers of pretentious metaphors and pseudo-wise musings to figure out what point Heller/Wolitzer wants the reader to walk away with.
There's something she's trying to say about war--I think. And there's a message in there about technology among youth, somehow, except in the abrupt ending it's (maybe) recanted. Also there's something about desire, and the desirability of taking abrupt action to shape up your life, but the author seems to be of about seventeen minds on those subjects. Should the example of Eli and Willa make the reader think that it's wrong and cruel to tinker with lives or take a stand for the sheer sake of taking a stand? Should the example of Robby and Dory make the reader think that being entirely cruel to someone you love is great because it magically brings you closer together (with a necessary mind-wipe twist to the magic because, presumably, the author realized that in truth this authentically in-love couple could not move on blissfully from a several-months rift in their relationship without assistance from a 'spell'?) Should Heller's relationship with her husband be the example everyone should follow--forever long-distance, a cheapo shortcut to a lasting marriage?
Though it was a mostly-breezy and sometimes funny read, it struck me from the beginning as kind of a pointless novel, and on finishing I was disappointed to realize I was right. And no, that's not a sexual metaphor. It was just not that good.
This novel is an odd exploration of female desire and the changes in relationships through time. In a generic town in New Jersey, the production of the high school play Lysistrata, coincides with the enchantment of the women of the town with a spell that saps their desire. The narration is done by an omniscient narrator that is rather foreboding and irritating. The questions posed by the stories about passion and relationships are resonant and disturbing. And yet with that much emotional chaos and upheaval it would be nice to find some answers, which, sadly, weren’t in this book. I didn’t especially enjoy reading this book, but I kept going, hoping that the painful path these characters were on would resolve well. It kind of did, in an overly simplified, unsatisfying way that left me feeling somewhat lost. So, if you are interested in a literary exploration of female sexual desire, that ends without resolution, then read this book. Perhaps it is deeper, more artsy that way? It very well could be that I’m not sophisticated enough to get it. But I am giving this book 3 stars because, although I didn’t really like it, I’m sure that parts of the book will fill my head for quite some time. And isn't that partially the point of literature?
This is my second time reading this, and it was quite staggering how differently I responded to it at 23 versus 18. I remember thinking it was brilliant, but the writing is so bad that I couldn't enjoy or focus on the ideas of the novel this time.
It is clear that Wolitzer knows very little about teenagers or what it is like to work in a school. Her disdain for her characters is apparent, in that she makes little effort beyond their creation to understand or empathize with them in any way. They are flat and predictable. Struggling to understand the culture of teens today, Wolitzer employs the tactic of many has-beens, disparaging young people in every way she can. It is clear that she has spent little time texting or online, and she should be embarrassed that she even attempted to depict these things accurately. She was just SO OFF.
So why give it three stars? I have to admit that this book meant something to me as an 18 year old. It was gifted to me by my AP Lit teacher, and it was the perfect gift for me at that time. It fed my growing disillusionment with monogamy and my desire to expose the fallacies we are taught about long term relationships. Even now, these messages speak to me. I just wish that Wolitzer wasn't so flagrantly perplexed by any relationship outside of the cishet "norm." Her deliberate misunderstanding of polyamory and queerness was disgusting. The outline of this novel was a phenomenal idea, but frankly Wolitzer isn't with it enough to do these ideas justice.
"All winter she'd let them fall into quietude, into lassitude, into comfort. Wasn't one of the goals of life to be comfortable in your own skin and in your own bed and on your own land? But as soon as you achieved it, you felt an immense sadness, and then you wanted to wreck everything around you, just because you could. Comfort was the best thing, and maybe the worst" (258.)
The story is told in a third-person narrative and divided into three parts. The first part focuses on the events leading up to the introduction of the play Lysistrata by the school's new drama teacher. The second part goes into detail about all of the different couples affected by the spell that the play casts over the town. The third part tells what happens in the night of the actual high-school production of the play and afterwards. The spell of Lysistrata resembled a cold wind and only affected "women who were in some way connected sexually to men." No woman in the book was strong enough to resist the power of this mysterious wind, not even the ones newly in love and lust. Every woman affected imagined her own reasons for abstaining, and though all of the different reasons had a logical ring to them, only other women could relate. The men were simply left in the dark to react however he felt could change his twist in circumstances. Early on, I felt that this book was a bit like a study of sex and the affects of sex -- or lack thereof -- on individuals and relationships. Even though the play Lysistrata was meant to be a catalyst for all of these private events, the high-school reenactment seemed to take a minor background role. The spell seemed to empower the women, though they did not act any happier with their new freedom and individuality. Many were just as baffled or depressed with the chastity as the men, but no couple was able to converse with each other about it, which I found strange and attributed to the effects of the spell. Ironically, because the issues of sex are such a private matter, very few couples shared their problems with anyone else in town, and so no one truly recognized the correlation between the abstinence of the females in town and the play Lysistrata. This irritated me to no end throughout the book. On the night of the play, the spell is magically lifted by, quite appropriately, a warm wind when the men in the audience begin to protest the essence of the play itself and use that to try and win their women back. Throughout the whole book, the reader is lead to believe that this spell has no designer, that it has simply attached itself to the performance of the play from Lysistrata's origins in 411 B.C. Though I at first was suspicious of a certain person as casting the spell, I was also lulled into changing my mind about this. Without giving away the ending, I was quite surprised at the truth behind the spell's beginnings. There is much I could say about the thoughts that raced through my head while reading the last few pages and the conclusions that I drew from the revelation, but I will resist. I will say that the book is worth every page for its startling culmination.
Set in the midst of a small town, the wind seems to blow in more than just a new drama teacher. Fran Heller, drama teacher extraordinaire chooses the Greek play Lysistrata for her debut. Lysistrata tells the story of women protesting war by withholding sex. Very few question the appropriateness of the play since Heller promises to tone down anything terribly inappropriate. Unfortunately, the play seems to have a ghost like charm on the townsfolk as everyone from the very sexually active school psychologist, the lovingly married English teachers, the middle-aged couple, and the explorative high schoolers begin to snub their noses at sex.
The Thoughts about It
This is my first Meg Wolitzer book and I must admit, two weeks since reading it, I am still very much on the fence. Part of me wants to be enthused. Choosing a Greek play as the backdrop is quite smart and the writing ultimately was astute and witty. BUT sometimes it just felt like it was trying too hard to be that a SMART book. Does that make sense? Like, maybe it felt a little pretentious to me? And the ending. Sheesh. The whole time the novel is moving along I’m an intelligent buckaroo…and then as soon as the ending strikes, it’s as though the Cliff Notes version wrapped it up just in case I missed something.
But here’s what I did really like: Robby and Dory, the two English teachers who worked together, loved together, and lived together? They’re relationship was great. It was humorous and yet still a bit snippy. Plus, I thought Wolitzer nailed it how the lack of desire can just sometimes HIT YOU without you expecting it. It’s brave, in my opinion, to bring up in a book the possibility that you could love someone deeply but cringe at the thought of them touching you.
Plus, because there were so many different sexual relationships going on in the novel, it allowed for sexual affections to be explored in all forms. I especially dug the high school girls and their reactions to sexual discovery. Or in the case of the dramaqueen, the possibility of using sex to make a point.
Ouch and there was this one scene…and if you’ve read it, YOU KNOW what scene I’m talking about…between the middle-aged couple that just made me want to turn away, close my eyes tightly and cover my ears. I didn’t want to be privy of their conversation. And I guess that ultimately does say something HUGELY positive about Wolitzer’s writing. Because there were enough scenes that I felt I was wrongly eavesdropping in on. She captures human interactions PERFECTLY.
So you see why I’m on the fence here? I could easily be swayed either way.
“This is so unfair and unnecessary, we’re not sex-addled animals!” shout the men, who uniformly fell apart within hours or days of being denied sex. Lol. Um, what to say…it was kind of fun, I guess. I like Wolitzer’s writing and didn’t mind the magical realism, but the message felt a bit…muddled? Robby was probably the most disappointing character.
By far the most offensive and problematic aspect of the book for me was Bev. The body shaming, the fat phobia…ugh! Every character whose point of view we experience feels a need to comment on her weight, and seems to see her only as an amorphous blob of fat. A “bumblebee of a woman.” She sees herself that way. Of course she eats with uncontrolled gluttony, and is entirely sedentary. Such an unfair and outdated depiction of being overweight. I’d been envisioning her as this morbidly obese lumbering blob weighing at least 350 based on how emphasized her weight was. Instead I learn near the end that she was very thin in her 20s has gained 65 pounds over the course of 30 years and multiple children. So let’s say she started out at 5’6” 145lbs (thin but not insanely so) and is now 5’6” 210. That is not that crazy!! I doubt you’d be struck dumb by her weight if you passed her on the street. And it happened over a very long time horizon, it’s not as if she packed on 65 lbs in a summer or something. Anyway, I’m on a HAES/body positivity journey personally, so encountering this kind of depiction in fiction from a relatively “woke” writer is deeply disappointing and discouraging.
Oh, and what was the deal with Ruth’s ending? She goes from “I don’t understand uptight women who deadbolt the bathroom door to keep their children at bay” to “honey we need a deadbolt” because of the spell/the break from sex? As a mom I can understand the overtouched feeling, and feeling like your body is colonized and no longer your own, but that didn’t seem to be Ruth’s experience before the spell? What to make of that transformation?
At times this 2011 novel almost read like a period piece. All the cell phone stores replacing other retailers - lol. That was short lived. The grappling with the new role of technology in our lives. (“Do we really need new terms like ‘sexting’ for everything?” one character muses.) I did laugh out loud at many of the descriptions. Wolitzer is a droll and observant writer. But it seemed quite clear she had a message to convey about sexual politics and feminism and upon finishing…I’m not sure what that message was 🤷♀️ Someone smarter than I am: please explain 😂
A rushed review-actually, the reason I read this is because I was rushing through the library, saw the author's name, vaguely remembered liking The Ten Year Nap, and grabbing it without reading the inside cover to see what it was about. Basically, couples in a town stop having sex with each other. The women suddenly decide that they're done, leaving their husbands/boyfriends bewildered, and in some cases, a little angry. While parts of it were actually quite funny and well-written (one man pretty much gives up and buys a Cozie, which is a Snuggy for two people), other parts were either too much or just...weird. Example of too much-the gym teacher's little boys follow her into the bathroom. Fine, whatever, no problem with that, if you have little kids this is't a big thing. Then they discuss how she must have had beans because of her involuntary gas release on the toilet. TOO MUCH. Example of weird-the end. The climax of the book (pun intended) is absolutely awful. It reminded me of the end of Perfume...and I admit I never finished the book, I watched the movie because of Alan Rickman...which was very WTF.
This is one of the lowest rated books I have read in some time, but for whatever reason this book worked for me as a reader. I can understand why other readers thought that Wolitzer brainstormed all the ways women could be dissatisfied and made characters for each, but I saw it less as an outline and more as a 'chorus of women', reflecting the play Lysistrata featured in the story. Not only does she paint convincing portraits of all female characters, Wolitzer also uses sexual desire as a lens through which to explore gender relations in society. Although I found the ultimate role of Fran Heller vague and frustrating, like other readers, I did not dislike the resolution of the story. I understand others' critiques of the ending (and sometimes I am convinced by them!) but personally felt that the ease with which the men and women made up spoke to the way in which we can become self-aware and thoughtful about societal ills, such as the war in Afghanistan, but would really rather view the world with rose-tinted lenses. I think this theme could have been more incisively delivered by Wolitzer: conceptually, this book was clever but lacking in some acuity.
I'm not sure why I read this book, as I wasn't particularly fond of the 'Ten Year Nap'. Her characters are all kind of irritating and a stretch to relate to; the concept of the book (what happens when a town goes without sex for a few month) was kind of interesting to me and I thought that the possibilities would be better explored. It would have been better if the spell hit everyone at once; also, the incredible selfishness of the drama teacher was a little tough to swallow at the end - the fact that she thought the way her marriage worked could be applied to so many people seemed very arrogant. The only two characters I had any empathy for - Willa and Eli - are the two who end up most touched and changed at the end, by lessons they might have learned had their romance been allowed to continue without the spell.
An interesting proposition that I thought could have been better written, better handled and more thoroughly discussed (maybe by just examining one or two couples?). It's a good idea, but needs a much stronger execution.
Three stars is even a little generous- this book is SUCH a dip in quality from her previous books. The plot is heavy handed -I get it, people stop having sex because the high school is putting on Lysistrata! Every description of the book says so there is no reason to even mention it more than once, and certainly not OVER AND OVER in the book. It's like she forgot who she was writing for, her previous books seemed not to assume the reader was a total idiot. She still writes characters well overall but there were some questionable choices, mainly her grotesque descriptions of an overweight character, they really seemed to go from simply descriptive to tacky, and the creation of a PCP-like drug the kids do called J Juice. There are alot of real drugs out there that kids actually do! There is no reason to make up a ridiculous sounding fake substance that makes the author sound about a million years old. Skip this and read The Ten Year Nap, The Position, The Wife, anything but this!
I thought I would love this book a lot more than I did. Intriguing premise and well-drawn characters, but none were quite fleshed out (heh) to my satisfaction (sorry). I was irritated by the obviousness of the spell manifesting as 'cold air' (got it: frigidity). And why did these women so apathetically accept their loss of desire, which came on so suddenly and dramatically? More reflection on how the spell affected their feelings about their own bodies and psyches in addition to their romantic relationships would have added some much-needed depth.
I didn't guess the "twist" at the end, but I didn't find it particularly clever, either - it lacked the quirkiness of good magical realism.
I did love the teenage characters; they were by far the most believable and real. I was genuinely sad about the fate of their relationship; the others left me, well ... cold.