'The Uncoupling': A Dry Spell, From A Curious Curse

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
 
The Uncoupling
By Meg Wolitzer
Hardcover, 288 pages
Riverhead
List Price: $27.99
Read An Excerpt

When Fran Heller, a feisty drama teacher with bold taste in home décor, joins the staff of Eleanor Roosevelt High School, the faculty, students and parents think little of it. They welcome her to town and eagerly anticipate the controversial play she settles on directing: Lysistrata, Aristophanes's centuries-old comedy in which the women of Greece go on a sex strike to stop the Peloponnesian War. Soon though, it's the women of Stellar Plains, New Jersey who are withholding sex from their husbands and boyfriends — though not by their own free will. They are the victims of a mysterious and not-talked-about bewitchment. Their libidos vanish; they feel overtouched, and intimacy is suddenly intolerable.

In The Uncoupling, bestselling author Meg Wolitzer sets up a twenty-first century parable that blends the supernatural with the decidedly real. The early chapters of her novel each introduce and examine the life of an individual woman whose life has been changed by the spell. They segue gracefully — a peripheral figure in one woman's life becomes the center of her own subsequent chapter. There is Dory, the charismatic English teacher whose once-blissful marriage to Roby, a fellow teacher, is the envy of all their colleagues — until it freezes over. Then there's Willa, their teenage daughter, suddenly chilled after one of her very earliest sexual encounters. The promiscuous guidance counselor finds herself preferring the couch on Saturday nights and regretting her previously wanton ways. The gym teacher questions her marriage and sexual orientation. Willa's best friend, Marissa — the star of the play, Lysistrata herself — literalizes the drama, transplanting her canopy bed to the school's front lawn in protest of the war in Afghanistan.

Of course though, bedroom intimacies are never revealed in full candor, even to the closest of friends. The women of Stellar Plains suffer silently and in what they believe to be solitude. Their frigidity, spontaneous and confusing though it is, does indeed grant them a sort of sad power. As Wolitzer woefully philosophizes, "The one who loved less — or acted as if they did — was in charge, and that was the way the world went." Though the spell afflicts individuals, its dominion is shared, and the wretched charm doesn't lift until the couples' collective energy can be harnessed all at once.

Meg Wolitzer is the author of The Ten Year Nap, This Is Your Life and Surrender, Dorothy. She lives in New York.

hide captionMeg Wolitzer is the author of The Ten Year Nap, This Is Your Life and Surrender, Dorothy. She lives in New York.

Lisa Barlow

Whimsical as Wolitzer's conceit may sound, it doesn't seem artificial. The appearance and retreat of love, in all of its "shuddering illogic," does often feel like a magical conjuring. Libido is, quite literally, a spell. Wolitzer is most skillful when inspecting physicality up close: Dory can hear how Robby scratches himself under a blanket, and "the timbre of the scratch made her think it was the inside of a thigh." When she's alone at the computer, Willow float[s] in her ergonomic desk chair like a dental patient in space." And when her boyfriend touches her, she "mews." But Wolitzer's rendering of adolescent life — "The generation that had information, but no context. Butter but no bread. Craving, but no longing" — is tone-deaf: the slang names she ascribes to drugs, her transcriptions of text message exchanges, the canned references to energy drinks and Xtrme sport injuries — these are cringeworthy. But her visual descriptions of teenagers, "with their unfinished faces, and piercings that puncture[d] the most tender membranes of their bodies like buckshots," are exquisite.

The Uncoupling is a fast, fun read, and like all off-kilter thought experiments, it asks us to reexamine the experiences we accept unthinkingly as well as the very language we use to describe them. Desire is enchanting, but its sudden absence can feel like a curse.

Excerpt: 'The Uncoupling'

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
 
The Uncoupling
By Meg Wolitzer
Hardcover, 288 pages
Riverhead
List Price: $27.99

People like to warn you that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness. The bright points of silver. The butter in its oblong dish. The corpse of a chocolate cake. The leaning back in a chair at the end, slugged on the head and overcome. Dory Lang had always thought there was a little cruelty in such a warning. It was similar to how, when she had a baby, people always tried to clue her in on what they were sure would befall her. Once, long ago, Dory and her infant daughter were riding a bus in the city, when an old woman leaned over and said, "May I tell you something, dear?" She had a kind face full of valleys and faults. Dory imagined she was about to describe the baby's beauty—in particular, the curve of the mouth—and she made her own mouth assume a knowing, pleased modesty. But what the woman said, leaning even closer, was, "You will never have another day in your life that is free of anxiety."

There was a little private pleasure to be taken in the fact that that old woman, though she was of course correct, was now dead, and Dory was not. As for the warnings about the disappearance of passion, Dory recognized the sadism stitched into the words.

Because the love lives of the women who said such things had gone soft and pulpy and tragic, they took a little comfort in telling as many women as they could that someday such a change would happen to them too.

Dory and Robby felt they were exempt from such an outcome, assuming that even when they were so old that they appeared interchangeable—even when his ankles were as narrow and hairless as hers, and her lips were as thin and collagenless as his, and their pubic hair could have belonged to Santa Claus; even when they resembled those dried-apple dolls sold in the gift shops of folk museums—they would sleep together frequently, happily, and not just gently, but with the same gruff, fierce purpose as always.

Around them, in other houses in their neighborhood, there would be a terrible pile-up of non–sex-having couples, all bone and tendon and indifference and regret.

Warmly, hotly, tirelessly, in their own bed they would stay.

The Langs had been teaching English at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Stellar Plains, New Jersey, for a decade and a half when everything changed. It had been an uneventful school year so far; there had been no deaths, neither student nor teacher, and not even any halfhearted, prankish bomb threats, which had become as common to suburban high schools as intramural sports.

Robby and Dory Lang began that year at Eleanor Roosevelt— Elro, everyone called it—with the same optimism that they almost always felt. It had grown tempered in recent years, since the economy had tumbled, and certain concrete signs of optimism were no longer as central a part of the school experience: the smell of pencils, for instance, with their suggestion of woodshop and campgrounds and the promise of some precocious kid's standout in-class essay.

Pencils still lurked, fragrantly, but you had to look for them, and they seemed outnumbered by all things with a keyboard. Still, though, the Langs were hopeful; still, they thought it would be a good year.

Together they were often spoken of in one breath by the other faculty members as Robby and Dory Lang, or just Robby and Dory, or by the students as Mr. and Ms. L, those two married, easygoing, still fairly young English teachers who walked the halls with a genial air. There were some teachers at Elro who lived to crack down on the kids. "Where's your pass?" they would demand of a boy with a mouth freshly wet and slack from the water fountain. "Wha', wha'?" said the boy, stammering, dripping. But the kids knew that Dory and Robby weren't out to get them. Even their pop quizzes were humane.

At just past forty they were both good-natured, decent-looking, tallish, and as dark-redheaded as Irish setters. Robby wore egghead eyeglasses that had become fashionable in recent years. He had a hard shield of a chest, and he rode a bike on weekends through the smooth streets of the neighborhood. Each morning he unscrewed one of the green glass canisters on the countertop and poured himself a dusty bleat of oat and twig, pious about his intake, wanting to live a long time so he didn't miss a second with his wife or daughter.

The Langs were young, but not too young; old, but not too old. Girls often exclaimed over Dory's boots, which dated back to her Brooklyn days and were the approximate color of caramel, narrowing to a subtle point—not quite the boots of a snarling female rocker, but not the boots of a hiker with bags of muesli swelling her pockets either. The girls also liked Robby's pale, much-laundered work shirts, which by third period he had invariably rolled up at the sleeves, revealing arms with a light spatter of goldenrod hair. Neither Robby nor Dory repelled or depressed the kids the way their parents tended to. Nor were they like the kids themselves, who had unfinished faces and piercings that punctured the most tender membranes of their bodies like buckshot—the kids with their energy drinks, their Xtreme sports injuries, and with their restless need to be in touch through some device, even if in real life they'd only been apart long enough to go to the bathroom:

" what r u up 2"
"peeing"
"when will u be back"
"look up i am back"

In the time that they'd spent in the English department at Eleanor Roosevelt, Robby and Dory had both been named Teacher of the Year with surprising frequency. Once in a while an art teacher with a head sprouting dreadlocks, or the unusually lenient Spanish teacher, Señor Mandelbaum, busted up the monopoly, but for years at a time husband and wife had predictably passed the honor from hand to hand.

It was as if they had each said to the other:

Okay, this year you be the better teacher. This year you be the one who remains in the classroom tacking up pictures of J. D. Salinger and Maya Angelou, with captions like, "For Chrissakes, Jerry, You Were Never a Phony," or, "So Why Does It Sing, Maya?"

Meanwhile, I'll be the one who ducks out the moment school is over, telling the class over my shoulder, "Don't forget to check eSignment for tonight's homework. And for those of you who can't stand to wait, I'm asking you to read until the part where he sees Daisy Buchanan again."

Excerpted from The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer. Copyright 2011 by Meg Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead.

Books Featured In This Story

The Uncoupling
The Uncoupling

by Meg Wolitzer

Hardcover, 271 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • The Uncoupling
  • Meg Wolitzer

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: