Critique of modern life fails in ‘The Uncoupling’

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Book Review

In Aristophanes’ comedy “Lysistrata,” the women of Athens decide to end the interminable Peloponnesian War by withholding the one thing they believed their men couldn’t live without: sex.

Meg Wolitzer’s new novel “The Uncoupling” transplants Aristophanes’ story into the modern age. The quiet New Jersey suburb of Stellar Plains functions as Wolitzer’s modern-day version of Athens. The town is tight-knit, wholesome and relatively free from scandal, intrigue or dramatic events.

That is, until a new drama teacher comes to Eleanor Roosevelt High and puts on a production of “Lysistrata.” A strange thing begins to happen to the women of the town: Seemingly under a spell, the women lose all desire for their husbands, boyfriends and lovers, and turn away from sex completely.

The best that can be said about “The Uncoupling” is that it’s occasionally mildly entertaining and doesn’t draw itself out. Wolitzer writes with a light, conversational tone and the novel skips along at a brisk pace. It’s easy to get through the entire novel in one sitting.

Rather than making “The Uncoupling” a truly enjoyable read, this breezy tone reflects how shallow “The Uncoupling” ultimately is. Without giving away the entire plot, the whole mystical sexual shutdown is essentially pointless by the novel’s anticlimactic end. Wolitzer fails to find any kind of real meaning or reflection in her premise, which is so creative and has so much potential for social commentary.

Wolitzer tries to create a relatable cast of characters that might live around the corner in any suburb in the nation. There’s Dory and Robby Lang, a happily married couple and the most popular teachers in Stellar Plains. There’s their daughter Willa, a shy teenage girl experiencing her first twinges of desire for her new boyfriend Eli. There’s the young and beautiful school psychologist Leanne and her sadly sweet lover, the married school principal. And there’s Bev, the unhappy, overweight school counselor.

However, Wolitzer’s efforts at relatability result in uninteresting characters. The inner monologues of every person in Stellar Plains end up blending together and no single person seems to have any kind of complexity or real personality.
Even the drama teacher Fran, whom Wolitzer professes to be so radically unconventional and blunt for Stellar Plains, blends into the monotony of the novel’s bland character landscape and fails to contrast with the other townspeople.

In addition, Wolitzer and her adult characters’ patronizing views of their teenaged children and students are an incredibly grating quality of the book. The parents and teachers of Stellar Plains constantly remark on the apathy and technological obsession of the town’s teenagers without trying to understand or engage them in any way.

If Wolitzer means for this to be some kind of social commentary or clever satire, it comes off as incredibly flimsy and not at all humorous. Instead, it reads as condescending and shallow.

Most irritating of all is the strange, unnatural dialogue. Wolitzer often seems to have no concept of how real people actually talk, especially teenagers. Almost every exchange of dialogue sounds robotic and painfully awkward to read.

“The Uncoupling” touts a wonderfully clever premise that unfortunately belies its disappointing, weak execution.

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The Uncoupling
Meg Wolitzer
Genre: Romantic comedy
Pages: 270
For those who like: Jane Austen, Helen Fielding
Grade: D+