The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer is a delightful novel to try and unpick: part sex comedy and part satire on small town America, it’s blown along by a puff of magic realism. A new teacher, Fran Heller, starts at the school where happily married Dory and Robbie both teach and chooses Aristophanes’s drama Lysistrata as the annual production. The play’s theme is a ‘sex strike’ initiated by its female protagonists in a bid to stop their husbands from going to war. Before long life in Stellar Plains resonates with art when a cold wind blowing through the town saps the libido of the town’s womenfolk. The impact of this enforced celibacy on the men in their lives is the substance of the novel which is by turn funny, tender and thought-provoking.
Yet amongst all the playfulness Wolitzer is successful in making the reader care about characters who are not the two-dimensional ciphers they could have easily become. Willa, Dory’s daughter who is in her first serious relationship, school psychologist Leanne embroiled in an affair with, amongst others, the Principal and overweight Bev, unhappy at having been rebuffed by her wealthy husband, are just some of the characters who compete for our attention. As for the men, they are not unsympathetic characters either: although the author’s focus is on women’s midlife sexuality to interpret the book as some kind of 1980s feminist tale would be a mistake!
Likewise, despite the novel’s magical element ( and admittedly the eventual breaking of the spell during the play’s performance does strain credulity ) this is not an unworldly story but one that manages to retain a firm foothold on contemporary life. Dory and Robbie agonise about the social media and the effect it has on the younger generation. While welcoming the digital revolution their problem is not being able to remain as fluid as they needed to be in order to embrace the hulking, steaming heap of technology. The quality of the writing, its confidence and its zingy pace, undoubtedly help to offset any possible discordance between the elements of fantasy and reality. Wolitzer is extremely good on visual detail, thus a teenage boy’s head seemed to assert itself into the dining room like the head of a moose mounted on a piece of wood whereas towards the end of the novel Robbie’s gut, developed as a result of substituting food for sex, looks strange on his long, thin body as if he were smuggling something across a border. Similarly, the students auditioning for the play are described as having hearts that push hard in the narrow birdcage of their chest.
It’s possible to identify traces of Ann Tyler and John Updike in the social commentary of The Uncoupling and no doubt many other influences are at work but ultimately this novel just needs to be enjoyed for what it is: a clever ( not least its title!) and enchanting weave of many different strands which make for a great read.