The Uncoupling

The Short Version: A small town in New Jersey, full of happy and contented couples of all ages, is suddenly struck by a strange spell that chills the desire of the women and drives them from their husbands’/lovers’/boyfriends’ beds.  Meanwhile, the high school students prepare for opening night of a production of Lysistrata, led by their quirky new drama teacher.

The Review: Before I started reading, I was astonished to see that this book had such a low rating on Goodreads.  It seems like such a great concept and Wolitzer is a moderately respected author – what was the problem?

And even as I started reading, I couldn’t figure out what the issue was. The book itself is a beautiful object – the slight grit on the cover mixed with a heavier glossier paper made it feel great in the hand, the light blue of the actual book itself is quite pleasing – and I was enjoying my introduction to these ordinary folk in Stellar Plains, NJ.  The tone is light and witty and there was a generally Ann Patchett-y feeling to the whole thing.  It was comfortable to read this book and the pages fell away.  And then I started to realize something – I not only knew exactly what was going to happen, but that Wolitzer wasn’t going to come through on actually making it a worthwhile ending.  And this is a shame, because the book has some nice scenes and lots of well-written segments about theater and life and love.

So the sex strike (because that’s essentially what it is – there’s a Lysistrata thing here and let’s not make any bones about it) starts with this mysterious cold wind that breezes over and into these women, sometimes literally in the midst of sex.  It’s a fascinating thing, this breeze: it fights harder to quell the flames of desire in some while others essentially just accept it.  Willa, a young girl caught in the passion of first love and first sex, takes a lot more working than her mother or the older women in town.  And so the reader is left wondering: where does this breeze come from?  What causes it?  Is there a witch?  What’s the deal?

The fact that all of this coincides with a new drama teacher, a strange and opinionated woman, coming to town and choosing to direct Lysistrata should make things clear to even the slowest of readers.  Trust your gut here, folks – you will be rewarded.  Except because the story is so obvious, one expects more from it.  You want there to be an interesting reveal about the witchy teacher, you want the spell to have something to do with the Chinese herbal drug shop, you want something to have an impact.  But nothing does.  Absolutely nothing about this book has an impact because its all so damn obvious.  Will the spell be lifted?  Of course it will.  When will it happen?  If you’ve seen any teen movie ever, you know exactly when the spell will lift.  And suddenly a reader finds themselves lacking any real connection to the story.  The stakes are empty, the tension gone, and all we’re left with are the characters – and none of them are all that wildly exciting and so interest itself flags completely.

See, the characters start interesting – but they all have this artificial arc placed on them because of the sex thing.  Oh, the hot young teacher decides to stop sleeping around… but then just decides to stop sleeping with married men.  Oh, the loving teacher couple stops sleeping together and it breaks the husband’s heart… but then they start sleeping together again.  The only person who arguably doesn’t get a happy ending is Willa – but even that’s ambiguous, thanks to the final scene of her and Eli in Farrest.  It’s frustrating and makes you feel like you’ve wasted your time getting invested in these people if nothing was going to change.

All this said, though, the book is a pleasurable read.  It’s funny, it makes some interesting observations regarding fidelity and intimacy in the modern age… but that’s not enough to sustain a novel.  And then the ending.  The ending whacks off an entire star just for its sheer affront to all that is good in storytelling.  SPOILERS FOLLOW, so, be warned.
It turns out that, indeed, the drama teacher caused the sex strike.  And she’s been doing this all over New Jersey.  And she doesn’t feel bad about it because it makes everyone happier in the end!  Except she messed up this time because her son got her and oh, gosh, whatever will she do?  How miserable for her.  Oh by the way she isn’t actually a witch – she just noticed, empirically, that doing a production of Lysistrata will bring on this sex-strike wind in whatever New Jersey town she’s currently teaching in.  (NOTE: as if you needed another reason to stay away from New Jersey…)

It’s just such a wildly frustrating ending because you feel like Wolitzer thinks its okay, that she’s done a great job wrapping everything up.  She’s congratulating herself even as you’re tearing your hair out and wondering why you’ve just read the book.  Because it’s not bad – it’s just not good, either.  It is so very smack-dab in the middle that it hurts.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  If someone like Sarah Ruhl or Ann Patchett had written this book, I think it would’ve been much different.  I can’t really say it was bad, nor can I rate it as such.  I had an enjoyable time reading it and I certainly enjoyed burning through it.  But the ending was so frustratingly simple and such a cop-out that I can’t really like the book either.  It’s kind of a literary blue-balls, to be crass: so much build up and then you don’t get the release you were looking for.

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