“The Uncoupling,” by Meg Wolitzer, has elements of a fairy tale, or perhaps a vampire-less episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” A spell is cast over a small town in New Jersey, in which all women lose interest in their male partners. Not coincidentally, the local high school is performing Aristophanes’ play, “Lysistrata.” Aside from ceasing all sexual relations, the women in “The Uncoupling” share little in common with the women of “Lysistrata,” being unwilling activists and as confused and irritated as their male partners in their own sudden lack of desire. Wolitzer nevertheless draws some interesting parallels between the importance of intimacy and healthy relationships, particularly as couples age or go through physical or emotional changes.
The cast of characters are drawn from teachers, administrators and students at the high school, and even the school-aged girls are not immune from the lack of affection for their boyfriends. Wolitzer’s inclusion of the teenagers as sexual beings is refreshingly without moral finger-wagging:
“Young people today, everyone was told, hooked up with one another—’hooking up,’ a phrase that, if put into quotation marks, made the person referring to it seem like an old, tragic loser whom the world had left behind—but if not put into quotation marks, made the person seem to have accepted the concept of hooking up fully and completely.”
The culture, although sexualized, reflects a seemingly contradictory privacy of emotion: the older women’s shift is not acknowledged publicly for several months and the teenagers’ breakups are easily attributed to the fickleness of youth.
Wolitzer’s novel defies easy categorization in fantasy, sci-fi, or the demeaningly-titled “chick lit” genre. She cleverly borrows literary conceits from all, creating a unique piece of literature that’s thoughtful and hilarious, akin to Gary Shteyngart’s recent and exhilarating “Super Sad True Love Story,” or even, one might go so far to suggest: Margaret Atwood. One of the book’s attributes is the creation of words, allowing the reader to join the creative process with their imaginations. Characters visit an online world called “Farrest,” an artificial forest in which users adapt fantastical avatars. In a moment of desperation for closeness, a husband purchases a two-person Snuggie, which Wolitzer calls (almost obscenely): a Cumfy. Like many writers, Wolitzer is exploring how the online world, social networks, chatting and texting affect the written word. “If you wanted to get to know someone’s unconscious,” she writes, “All you had to do was take a look at everything they had looked at on the Internet over the course of a couple of hours when they were all alone.”
Ultimately, the spell that overtakes the women in town is as much about the power of literature as it is about enchantment. Since interpretations of Aristophanes’ play are left to the reader, what remains is how the act of saying “not now” or “not ever” might impact us today. (Kelly Roark)
By Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead, 288 pages, $25.95