Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):   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.

And here's what I thought:   This is an interesting story, less about sex and more about how men and women relate to each other.   The even pace of this story means that everything just starts out nice and smooth, and then begins to unfold.  As a reader, you see the relationships between several couples begin to come apart, not with explosive force, but almost with a sigh of indifference (or a sharp sigh of frustration).   The main couple we meet in the beginning, Dory and Robby Lang, seem like such nice people, attuned to each other, and to their daughter, Willa.  Dory and Robby appear to be a close couple, the kind that still hold hands after years of marriage, who always consider each other with respect and affection.  However, a stir is created in the community when the new drama teacher, Fran Heller, arrives on the scene.  At first, it just seems like she's a bit abrasive, a bit forward --- not really someone that fits in with the rest of the teachers.  But, that's to be expected with someone new.   What's not expected is that the play she chooses seems to weave a spell over the women and girls in the community.

The spell appears to strike Dory first, and then spread to other women, coming into their lives like a cold wind, and leaving them uninterested in having sex with their husbands and boyfriends.   For Dory, it is described like this:  "The spell was more subtle, but still when it first came over a woman it was shocking, perhaps even grotesque, and she didn't have any idea that she was under it.  Dory Lang simple felt as if she was freezing, and then she was aware of a mild disgust, no, even a mild horror at being touched.... Her body momentarily shook- a brief death rattle, a death-of-sex rattle, technically - and then stopped." (p. 13)   You'd think that in a strong relationship like Dory and Robby's, this wouldn't be such a big deal, and it isn't at first.  But when Dory can't explain to Robby why she is repelled by him, he becomes frustrated and hurtful, and their relationship starts to unravel under their animosity and indifference.   Other couples in town are similarly affected, including Dory's daughter Willa and her new boyfriend, Eli (who happens to be the drama teacher's son).   When, just as they are about to have sex, the spell comes over Willa, the change is immediate and upsetting, especially for Eli (not surprisingly, since it's so sudden).   As relationships continue to unravel, and the rehearsals for the play continue, everything seems to build, until you aren't sure if anything is going to be resolved between the women and the men.   I liked being kept on the edge like this, and also admittedly liked how this book gave me a voyeuristic glimpse into several relationships.  We all see people who seem perfectly happy together, the perfect couple, but wonder if they have some secrets --- and this book is all about that kind of thing.  And it's interesting to think about how important sex can be in a relationship --- not the act, itself, but the intimacy, the small moments of affection and touching that go along with it.  If that suddenly ended for one person in a relationship, I could see how it could be quite hurtful.

As I said, the pace in this story is smooth and even, and it has some unexpectedly funny bits in it, as well.  I came across several while I was reading that made me smile (although I will note that it is wry humor, not comedy).   The characters are all diverse and interesting, and there are even a few odd ones thrown in, like the drama teacher and another teacher, Abby Means.   Abby Means is a particularly entertaining character, as she's odd in both dress and manner, and when she interacts with the other characters, makes an impression.   One of my first moments with her is when Abby meets Fran, discovering that Fran has unwittingly taken Abby's soda from the teacher's lounge fridge.   Here's a bit of that (from p. 33)

"You know, I don't really ask for much," said Abby Means.  "But the one thing I do expect is that when I reach into the fridge each day, my soda will actually be there.  That no wildebeests or hobos have come and taken it away in the night."
             All the teachers watched with open interest.  By the copy machine, Dave Boyd laughed at Abby Means's latest outrageousness.... Dory thought that if she herself were the new drama teacher and someone had criticized her like that, she might have cried a little bit in front of everyone.  But Fran Heller said to Abby Means, "Oh, relax.  I'm not a wildebeest and I'm not a hobo.  You just like saying those words.  I'm new.  Cut me a little slack and it will all be fine."

Definitely gives you an idea of how Fran Heller's going to be as a new teacher in this school.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I think other readers are going to like it, as well.  It definitely would be a conversation-provoking choice for a book group. 

First sentence:  "People like to warn you that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness."

Thoughts on the cover:  Somewhat blurred look at a cookie-cutter little landscape of small houses, like a set for toy trains.  Underscores the whole "this is a nice little place where everyone is happy" idea at the beginning of the story.

Please note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher, through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.  Thus, any quotes or page numbers may differ upon final publication.


Karen said...

Very interesting! Thanks for the review.

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

I did like that first line. Good to include it!
Great review.

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