The Uncoupling, By Meg Wolitzer
Greek ghosts haunt desperate housewives in a mid-life comedy
Saturday 09 June 2012
There aren't many writers who manage to handle bedroom scenes as blithely as comic novelist Meg Wolitzer. In The Position, she wrote about growing up with sexually experimental parents. In this latest satire of American middle-class life, she examines the waxing and waning of mid-life desire.
At the heart of the novel lies the enviably happy marriage of Robby and Dory Lang. Popular English teachers at a New Jersey high school, they regularly shuffle the "Teacher of the Year" award between them. Just watching the well-suited pair exchange a goodbye kiss can turn onlookers a little pink; and whatever life throws at them, this enviable couple are firmly of the opinion that "warmly, hotly, tirelessly" in their own bed they will stay.
But arriving to upset the apple cart is Fran Heller, the school's newly-appointed drama teacher. A witch of sorts, she selects Lysistrata – Aristophanes's drama about a female sex strike - as the end-of-term production. Eyebrows are raised, but the students are willing, and their parents relieved to see their offspring weaned away from their unknowable online lives.
As the excitement of rehearsals get under way, so does an "enchantment" of another kind. One evening a chill wind whooshes up the nightgowns and duvets of the womenfolk of Stella Plains, and overnight wives and girlfriends find themselves suddenly repelled by their partners' touch. They're not just on strike like Aristophanes's women; they are completely finished.
A fearless social anthropologist, Wolitzer examines the impact of this libido-sapping hex on the female staff of Eleanor Roosevelt High. The school's beddable psychologist, Leanne Bannerjee, drops all three of her men, while Fran Heller is suspected of shelving her "secret giant vibrator". Back at the Langs' home, in an attempt to rekindle some semblance of marital warmth, Robby sends off for a "Cumfy" - a two-person bathrobe designed for extra-snuggly television viewing.
The novel's supernatural element never takes away from her characters' strength as flesh-and blood creations. In a novel that tingles with playfulness and laugh-out-loud observation, she poses questions about long-term intimacy and the death of desire.
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