Meg Wolitzer’s books generally focus on women’s lives, psychologies, and relationships in a thoughtful, honest, and compassionate way. They reflect a feminism that is wise, hard-fought, and grown up. There are no easy answers and no moralizing. Men are equally hurt by gender roles, and women are equally flawed. She extends grace to her characters, which makes us see ourselves in them. Laughing at them means laughing at ourselves, which is never a bad thing.
The premise of her latest novel, The Uncoupling , surprised me a bit, because it added an element of the fantastic to her typically realistic fiction. Realistic fiction and fantasy rarely play well together. But when they do, it’s magic. Okay, it’s actually magical realism, which is hard to explain and even harder to write. But, Wolitzer brilliantly pulls it off—as if we could ever doubt her. So, here’s the plot in a nutshell: A new drama teacher moves to the affluent, left-of-center community of Stellar Plains, New Jersey and chooses Lysistrata for that year’s production. Soon, all the women connected to the play lose interest in sex and begin rejecting their boyfriends and husbands. For Wolitzer’s women, unlike those in Lysistrata, the sex strike is involuntary, unwanted, and inevitable. This newfound disinterest comes upon them as a spell: “…what she felt was a stunning bolt of cold air strike her body. A formidable wind seemed to have flown in through the half-inch of open window, but had then immediately found its way under the duvet and under Dory Lang’s old thin, stretchy, skim-milk-colored nightgown” (13).
Before you think the book is all about this spell, it’s not. And, that’s what makes it work. The Uncoupling is about the results of the spell—and they are numerous. Dory and Robby Lang, the town’s beloved English teachers, turn to television and something called a “Cumfy—a blanket and a robe all in one” to replace the void in their relationship. Many women turn to Froze, a yogurt-like dessert that is wildly popular: “So many women who came to the store in the mall said they craved Froze; that was the word they used” (169). Other female characters discover an unearthed talent, a political conscience, and the need for space and boundaries. With sharp insight and a lot of wit, Wolitzer explores the world of love absent of sexual desire and the profound consequences it has upon each character.
One of the most poignant passages in the book occurs when Robby Lang, desperate to reconnect with his wife, orders an erotic board game. In a scene that is part comedy, part tragedy, the game that unfolds is a disaster. Dory reflects: “You could dress love up, but always you would have to confront desire—its absence or presence. Love could wear a bandana. Love could be frosted. But if it didn’t include pleasure, then it was sadder with a bandana, and sadder frosted” (119). In this passage, Wolitzer gives us the question of the novel. On the surface, The Uncoupling is a simple story. But, scratch the surface, and you’ll discover sharp, bittersweet observations about love and domesticity for which Wolitzer is so well-known.