[18 May 2011]
“Everyone knew that with men, the foul-up often seemed to exist in the mechanics; with women, it more often lay in desire, that inscrutable thing.” In The Uncoupling, Meg Wolitzer takes on women and sexual desire in a funny, sharply observed modern treatment of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.
Stellar Plains, New Jersey is a nice suburb, “a town that got mentioned whenever there was an article called ‘The Fifty Most Livable Suburbs In America.’” The children of Stellar Plans attend Eleanor Roosevelt High, known to all as Elro. Their English teachers Dory and Robby Lang are adored by students, admired by colleagues, and still smitten with one another. Guidance counselor Bev Cutler is unhappy with the 65 pounds she’s gained since marrying Ed, her hedge fund manager husband, but the recent economic downtown has left the couple’s fortune untouched. As for beautiful Leanne Bannerjee, the school psychologist, the world is her playground. Why settle and grow bored with one man when one can sample and voraciously enjoy many?
All this to say Stellar Plains, and by extension, Elro, is an uncommonly happy, contented place—until the arrival of drama teacher Fran Heller. Ms. Heller is unusual in the usual ways, given to dramatic garb and jewelry. One of her first moves, immediately endearing her to Dory, is taking on math teacher Abby Means, a dour woman obsessed labeling her sodas and lunches, lest they be stolen by her colleagues. At an ensuing dinner, Dory and Robby learn that Fran’s husband, Lowell, lives in Lansing, Michigan, an arrangement the couple finds entirely felicitous: “It works better for us this way… It’s not a separation… It’s just a marriage, and a solid one.” If questioned more closely, Fran Heller would admit she prefers the way her long distance union keeps the marital spark lit.
Fran Heller soon ruffles feathers with her unorthodox choice of school play. In Lysistrata, written in 411 B.C., the eponymous heroine urges her fellow wives to abstain from intercourse until their men refrain from war. Heller defends her choice, promising to mute the play’s more explicit moments. Besides, Lysistrata offers something past Elro plays haven’t: lots of female roles.
Parents thus placated, their children nervously audition for parts. Only beautiful Marissa Clayborn is not nervous. One of Elro’s few African American students, Marissa is a straight A student, Elro’s finest actor, and possessed of an implacable cool. The hullabaloo surrounding sex—an act Marissa is quite familiar with—eludes her. The fog of hormones clouding her friends merely makes her shrug. Naturally, she is chosen as lead.
One of Wolitzer’s great gifts as a writer is her ability—and willingness—to incorporate the broad band of ethnicities and sexual orientations found in waking life. Indian Americans, Asians, African Americans, and homosexuals appear in her work, meshing seamlessly into a harmonious society. (Wouldn’t it be nice if real life worked this way?) She moves with equally envious ease into the minds of the teenagers attending Elro, hilariously mimicking their texting:
“what r u up 2”
“when will u be back”
“look up i am back”
She also follows them online, where they play Farrest, a virtual reality game allowing teens who’ve spent all day together in class to choose avatars and fly about a virtual forest. Teenagers, Dory notices, view sex as dispassionately as they do everything else in their fortunate, entitled reach. They partake simply because it is there: another tidbit on the sampler platter that is life. But even the teenagers will not remain immune to the spell that sweeps Elro.
One by one, the women of Elro find themselves turning away from sex. The very idea literally leaves them cold. So Dory suddenly pushes away a hurt and bewildered Robby, Bev and Ed nearly come undone, and Leanne loses interest in her three boyfriends, including school principal Gavin McCleary. Robby and Dory’s teenaged daughter, Willa, abruptly ends her budding relationship with Fran Heller’s son, Eli.
If the men are angry and hurt, the woman are bewildered by their new feelings, or lack thereof. Bev Cutler can blame her weight, but Dory finds herself at a complete loss as Robby moves from hurt to rage. One of Leanne’s boyfriends takes to stalking her, while Principal McCleary loses all sense of professionalism, making no effort to hide his feelings. The sweetly gentle Eli is heartbroken. What has he done? Nothing at all.
The show must go on, so Fran Heller, whose unusual marriage has escaped the spell wending through Stellar Plains, rehearses her students until the opening night arrives. When it does, things don’t go quite as planned, but everyone agrees: Lysistrata is an unqualified success.
Wolitzer handles this touchy subject with her characteristic warmth and aplomb; even when writing of difficult topics, her writing radiates a kindly cheer unusual in our dark times. Not that she is oblivious—Marissa befriends a former Elro student enduring serious facial disfigurement after serving in Afghanistan, and Ed Cutler’s remarks to his wife are breathtakingly cruel—yet she manages to convince the reader that the bad moments, if not transient, will be outweighed by the good. That while a perfect life may not be possible, a happy one is.