THE UNCOUPLING by Meg Wolitzer

Uncoupling The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer, is the second book I have read by this author (here is my review of The Ten Year Nap), and it's an equally observant and witty (though ultimately flawed) commentary on modern domestic life. The story is about a New Jersey suburb and the drama teacher who arrives at the high school and decides to stage the Greek drama Lysistrata, which is about what happens when the women of a community withhold sex from their husbands in order to get them to stop fighting a war.

In The Uncoupling, the women involved in the play, from its actresses to their mothers to the faculty at the school, ultimately find themselves under a spell similar to the one that Lysistrata cast in her play – they lose all physical passion and shut out their husbands both emotionally and physically. They don't talk about it, though, so unlike in Lysistrata, the women in The Uncoupling have no idea what is happening to them, and believe themselves to be alone.

Wolitzer is a beautiful writer – something I learned in The Ten Year Nap. She's astute and observant, and funny too. Here is a passage I liked about how parents take their kids to task for spending too much time online, while they themselves do the same:

All of which forced real-life parents to make curdled and no doubt ignorant remarks about what their kids were missing, even as the parents themselves were drawn to their own screens, where they sat slack every night before a radiant blast.  As the hours disappeared, sometimes they purchased slippers; or read about a newly discovered species of lizard; or about a disease they feared they had; or about the unmysterious wars that quietly continued in Iraq and Afghanistan, as unseen as fires burning underground.  Leanne had recently remarked that if you wanted to get to know someone's unconscious, all you had to do was take a look at everything they had looked at and done on the Intenet over the course of a couple of hours when they were all alone.

Wolitzer's cast – a fortysomething couple who both teach at the high school, their daughter and her boyfriend (the son of the drama teacher), the beautiful and many-partnered guidance counselor, the overweight and long-married college advisor, just to name a few – is richly textured. The first half of the book, when these characters were introduced, was my favorite. Later, as Wolitzer injected magical realism and the drama teacher's spell took hold, I started to enjoy the book less. I found a subplot involving the play's star and her own use of Lysistrata's methods to protest our current war to be unconvincing and unncessary, and I agree with other reviewers that the end of the book tied up too neatly. There was enough to go on here, just in the depiction of the relationships and the ways in which the play affected them, that the extras were unnecessary and, in my opinion, took away from the book.

I am also not a big fan of magical realism – I like my books very literal. I don't think the magical realism was necessary here, and was instead a distraction for me.

While I was disappointed in the book when I finished it, due to the unsatisfying ending and the needless flourishes, I am still glad that I read it. I love Wolitzer's writing, and thoroughly enjoyed these characters and the suburban life Wolitzer created for them. I'd recommend The Uncoupling despite its flaws.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for selecting me to be a part of The Uncoupling book tour and to Riverhead Books for providing me a review copy of the book. I am the second to last stop on this book tour – here's a full list of all of the blogs that have reviewed The Uncoupling on the tour.

Are you interested in reading The Uncoupling? I have a copy to give away, thanks to Riverhead. Leave me a comment here and I will pick a name at random on Friday, April 29.

10 Comments

  • April 25, 2011 - 10:46 am | Permalink

    I just finished this one yesterday and feel the same way about it. The interjection of current politics was a big turn-off for me. It seemed out of place and I agree with the one male character who said, “How is withholding sex supposed ot bring the men back when they are already there fighting?” Didn’t make sense to me.
    My biggest disappointment was the Eli/Willa thread. It didn’t tie up too neatly for them, and I can’t say that I wanted it to but the entire relationship seemed pointless.

  • April 25, 2011 - 10:48 am | Permalink

    Oh, I’ve REALLY been wanting to read this.

  • April 25, 2011 - 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I had a somewhat similar reaction to you. The magical realism didn’t bother me in the midst of the satire (I’m not sure if it further blurred the magical/reality line for me or not), but the ending did. It was tied up too neatly for me, but it was still an incredibly enjoyable read. I’m looking forward to exploring her backlist too!

  • April 25, 2011 - 3:30 pm | Permalink

    This one seems to be getting mixed reviews. I’m still really curious about it.

  • April 25, 2011 - 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I agree, reviews seem to be all over the place on this one. I’d love to read it!

  • April 26, 2011 - 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. I can’t picture this without that little aspect of magic (honestly, it isn’t pervasive enough in their reality I’d even consider the book magical realism). I’m just not even sure how this book would be laid out without it.

  • April 26, 2011 - 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Jen, what if they had all been compelled to abstain based on the content of the play? What if there were other factors (besides the spell) that caused them to adopt Lysistrata’s tactics? I guess I’d have found the book more interesting if the causes were realistic rather than magical realism. To be sure, it would have changed the book considerably, and made it much more of a statement than a gentle satire.

  • April 27, 2011 - 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Such an interesting concept. I’ve heard good and bad about it. I’d love a chance to read it. Thank you!

  • May 1, 2011 - 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I felt the same way as you about the magical realism. I thought it was unnecessary and that the story could have been told without using the spell as the cause. But I loved her writing!

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