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The Uncoupling, By Meg Wolitzer
How women really feel in the bedroom
There aren't many writers who manage to handle sex scenes as blithely as the American comic novelist Meg Wolitzer. In a previous novel, The Position, she wrote about growing up with sexually experimental parents. In The Uncoupling, she examines the waxing and waning of mid-life desire. While many authors use sex to flesh out their characters, here Wolitzer wonders what happens when it's taken away.
At the heart of the novel lies the enviably happy marriage of Robby and Dory Lang. Popular English teachers at a high school in Stella Plains, New Jersey, they regularly shuffle the "Teacher of the Year" award between them. Just watching the passionate pair share a goodbye kiss can turn onlookers a little pink. Whatever life throws at them, they're convinced that "warmly, hotly, tirelessly" in their own bed they will stay.
Arriving to stir up staff-room passions at the start of term is Fran Heller, the school's edgy new drama teacher. Eyebrows are raised when she announces that the end-of-term play will be Lysistrata – Aristophanes's bawdy comedy about a female sex strike. Yet the students are keen, and parents relieved to see their offspring weaned away from their unknowable online lives.
As the rehearsals get under way, so does an "enchantment" of another kind. In a departure from her previous work, Wolitzer introduces a touch of magic realism. One night a chill wind whooshes up the nightgowns and duvets of the womenfolk of Stella Plains. In a flash, wives and girlfriends find themselves repelled by their partners' touch, none more so than Dory Lang.
Expertly lampooning liberal sensibilities as she goes, Wolitzer draws us into the precious world of Eleanor Roosevelt High. No member of staff is spared from the libido-sapping hex. Leanne Bannerjee, the beddable school psychologist, drops all three of her men, while Fran Heller is suspected of shelving her "secret giant vibrator". Back at the Langs, after bath oils and erotic board games fail to do the trick, Robby sends off for a "Cumfy" - a two-person bathrobe designed for extra-snuggly television viewing.
The fantastical element of the novel can feel overly staged, but it helps Woltizer dramatise her point about the transient nature of desire. In a novel that tingles with playfulness and wicked observation, the author poses serious questions about intimacy, passion and how women really feel in bed.
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