Friday, May 20, 2011

The Uncoupling yields to sentiment

Book 55: The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

Savagery, not sentiment, is expected from the merciless pen of the satirist. 

Yet sentiment, hope, optimism are exactly what we get from Meg Wolitzer in The Uncoupling. The delicious promise offered in the novel's premise -- when all the women in a New Jersey town stop having sex -- is never realized because the normally reliable Wolitzer pulls her punches.

Instead of skewering her characters, she permits them a happy ending. And with this novel that is surely the most disappointing and unlikely ending an author could conceive.

Wolitzer deftly uses a touch of magical realism to set up the story. There is a new drama teacher at the local high school and she decides to stage the Greek play Lysistrata.  In the play, written by Aristophanes, the women stop having sex to end war.

In The Uncoupling. the women stop having sex because they are touched by a weird cold wind -- somehow a product of the high school's production of Lysistrata. The cold wind affects women of every age and station from a middle-aged high school teacher in a model marriage to her daughter, an awkward young women just experiencing her first taste of young love.

When the sex stops, the men do not respond well. They become distant, withdrawn, surly. Some are quick to take offense, while others go on the attack. They say things, rude and offensive, that are meant to hurt.

It is a mistake to assume that The Uncoupling is simply about the differences between the sexes. Those differences are naturally a part of the story. The men miss sex. They really miss it. For the women, the absence of sex surfaces more as a memory of an activity that alternated between duty and pleasure.

In delivering her happy ending, Wolitzer suggests that sex (which is restored) is only a component of the necessary intimacy between man and woman. 

"These people . . . had no idea how to conduct their love lives," Wolitzer wrties. "They let everything fall into comfort or indifference or chaos or disrepair. They'd had no innate sense of how to protect the thing they claimed to care about above all else -- and instead they'd found many, many ways to let it rot. Some people seemed fine, seemed happy and contented with each other, and for the moment they actually were. But you knew that it was only a matter of time--months, years, it depended on the individuals--until their relationships began to erode just like everyone else's. So Fran Heller saved them all from themselves."

It seems too pat, too neat; take sex way for a time and then restore it and all is well. Surely some of the distance that developed in a relationship, some of the bitter words, would leave a more lasting residue. Sadly, The Uncoupling is a bit too optimistic to ring true. 

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