A Sexual Revival?

Meg Wolitzer
The Uncoupling
(Riverhead, 2011)

Meg Wolitzer has an uncanny ability to turn the mundane but consuming difficulties of marriage and motherhood into biting and humorous novelistic fare. The author of The Ten-Year Nap (a New York Times bestseller), The Position, and The Wife knows that an outwardly-boring middle-class family often masks a maelstrom of true love, profound misunderstandings, devastating rivalries, noble sacrifices, and Pyrrhic victories. Wolitzer also knows that sex is an important part of the mix, and has often mined this rich topic for material.

Yet the formula does not always work. The Uncoupling, Wolitzer’s most recent novel, proves sporadically interesting but silly and inescapably pointless. This, despite its focus on sex, and the unexpected role accorded an ancient Greek play. Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, dates from the 5th century B.C. and takes place in Athens during the intra-Greek Peloponnesian War. The eponymous character convinces women on opposite sides of the conflict to abstain from sex until their husbands sue for peace.

Fast forward to the small town of Stellar Plains, New Jersey, in the present day. The school year begins much like any other for happily married 40-somethings Dory and Robby Lang. But Eleanor Roosevelt High School, where they both teach English, has just hired a bona-fide drama instructor (in previous years, Robby headed the drama club), and she wants to stage Lysistrata. Could it really be a coincidence that, once the feisty and mysterious Fran Heller begins casting the play and conducting rehearsals, the women and teenaged girls of Elro High (as it is known) recoil from sex? A “strange and unnoticed but also undeniable spell” takes possession first of Dory and then, one by one, of the town’s entire female population. “All around Stellar Plains, the same low, hard wind was starting to blow in and out of bedrooms, under blankets, nightgowns, skin, and it would keep doing that for weeks, making its circuit, taking its time.”

Of course, demonstrating the scope of the spell necessarily makes much of the action lateral, with chapter after chapter offering up variations on the same theme but with different couples. In the midst of predictability, however, Wolitzer registers a few deft touches. Sometimes, it is a choice turn of phrase, as with this description of the school psychologist: “By virtue of being beautiful and tiny, Leanne Bannerjee had rarely been alone in her life. She had a budlike delicacy that made men often gasp in delight and strain to speak in couplets.” Other times, it is a sensitive portrayal of one or another stage of a relationship, as with the blossoming love between Dory and Robby’s daughter Willa and Fran’s son Eli, which starts out promisingly but quickly goes the way of so many relationships in town.

The major difference between the women of Lysistrata and those of The Uncoupling is that the former have a purpose in abstaining from sex, while the latter have been overcome by a “spell.” To put it simply: in Wolitzer’s story, we have entered the realm of fantasy. The author’s characters suddenly feel repelled by the deed, and cannot figure out why, though Dory tries. In a pretentious attempt to create a link between Dory’s odd situation and the notion of innocence, Wolitzer has her wrestle with the following dilemma: “She couldn’t tell [Robby] about wanting to shake everything up, or about what she now knew, which was that once you realize you are different from the way you used to be, then you can never be that earlier way again. Awareness changes you forever, and instead of being spontaneous, during sex you will forever be a little self-congratulatory.”

Not only are Wolitzer’s characters unable to explain why they have gone off sex, but they do not attempt to channel their newfound frigidity into a political or social demand. Except for the girl cast as Lysistrata, who decides to boycott both sex and her role in the play as a protest against America’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan, none of the women do anything remotely constructive.

But where Wolitzer really stumbles is in the book’s final chapter, in which the spell has been lifted during the students’ performance of Lysistrata and the women go back to normal. Rather than allow the reader to employ his or her imagination and contemplate all kinds of fantastic but intriguing explanations for the strange phenomenon at Elro High, she provides the reason herself. It turns out that drama teacher Fran Heller is Dr. Phil with magic powers. She discovered this inadvertently when first putting on Lysistrata at another New Jersey high school a few years earlier. Having suffered mightily as a result of their women turning away from them once the play was cast, the men took the stage during the performance and begged to be taken back. The women consented, and all was hunky-dory. Fran went to another school, where her choice of Lysistrata had the same effect, or, in Wolitzer’s (uncharacteristically) clumsy formulation, “corrections were made in various people’s sexual lives.”

Finally, she comes to Elro High, and witnesses the familiar process of relationships reaching their breaking point only to become re-energized. Perhaps aware of how lazy this is beginning to look, Wolitzer introduces a change. The episode at Elro High does not end in the usual tidy manner; by the time Willa has regained her passion for Eli, he has left town, having given up on her. But this would-be tragic twist proves too little too late, and the most memorable feature of The Uncoupling remains the embarrassing spectacle of lots of women behaving irrationally—the very opposite of what happens in Lysistrata—whether spurning their male partners or rushing to re-embrace them.

Contributor

Rayyan Al-Shawaf

RAYYAN AL-SHAWAF is a writer and book critic in Beirut.

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