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Review: ‘The Uncoupling’ by Meg Wolitzer

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By Meg Wolitzer

Riverhead, 271 pages, $25.95

Updated: April 24, 2011 2:20AM

If The Uncoupling were ever made into a movie, the opening scene would feature the frosty cold fingers of “the spell” winding through the rooftops of fictional Stellar Plains, N.J., leaving the women in its wake completely uninterested in sex. One by one, female teachers and students at Eleanor Roosevelt High School start inexplicably giving husbands, lovers and boyfriends the cold shoulder after new drama teacher Fran Heller arrives to mount a student production of “Lysistrata.” Readers don’t need the quoted excerpt at the start of the book to understand that

The Uncoupling unfolds around this comic, bawdy play by Aristophanes circa 411 BC. “Lysistrata” is a tale of the women of Greece withholding sex in an effort to end the Peloponnesian War. Gender politics have undergone myriad revolutions in the intervening centuries, but one thing remains the same: When women start denying their men in bed, havoc ensues.Author Meg Wolitzer built her career writing books like

The Ten-Year Nap that examine the push-pull reality of women’s lives and choices in this modern age. However The Uncoupling is an odd hybrid, blending those same themes with a heavy dose of magical realism.

Mysterious enchantments aside, fans of Wolitzer — and those new to her writing — can easily get caught up in the lives of characters young and old who are part of this “terrible pile-up of non-sex-having couples.” The first to succumb to the spell is Dory Lang, a happily married fortysomething English teacher who enjoys frequent, fervent lovemaking with her husband, Robby, a fellow teacher. One night in December, Robby reaches for her and Dory feels “a stunning bolt of cold air” strike her body. This “death-of-sex rattle” leaves her feeling disgusted by her husband’s touch, a rejection that quickly spirals their 15-year happy, passionate marriage into distance, petulance and the ultimate in sexless accessories — the fictional equivalent of a two-person Snuggie.

For other women who congregate in the teachers’ lounge, “the same low, hard wind was starting to blow in and out of bedrooms, under blankets, nightgowns, skin.” These very different women — the overweight college counselor, the play-the-field school psychologist, the former lesbian gym teacher — watch their newfound frigidity wreak havoc on their home lives. This sudden bout of celibacy causes some serious drama among students as well, many of whom are acting in the very play that seems to be causing all this uproar.

Wolitzer isn’t exactly subtle with some of her themes. Adult characters decry adolescents’ obsession with spending time on the computer, where connections and intimacy play out in a virtual reality game called Farrest. However these teens’ parents also admit to being seduced by email and technology as a sort of salve for the gradual withering of a middle-aged marriage.

But by book’s conclusion, the magical realism takes a turn for the absurd. In the story’s climax, the men of Stellar Plains finally protest, lifting the spell in a most dramatic way. It’s a scene that pushes the boundaries of believability, even in an already fantastical tale. Drama teacher Fran Heller seems a bit like a Mary Poppins for the intimacy-challenged, blowing into town to help everyone shape up in the bedroom.

And yet there are plenty of scenes, like Robby and Dory’s awkward attempts at a naughty board game in hopes of revving up her desire, or harried gym teacher Ruth Winik being unable to even use the bathroom without being crowded and grabbed at by her young sons, that feel incredibly genuine. Reality lapses aside, these insights into how marriages rise and fall will keep the pages turning.

Allecia Vermillion is a Seattle-based free-lance writer.

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