In Meg Wolitzer’s The Uncoupling, a suburban New Jersey town falls under a strange spell as the local high school prepares its stage adaptation of Lysistrata. The play is a centuries-old Aristophanes comedy in which women are called upon to withhold sex from their men in an effort to end the Peloponnesian War. Its ancient call to action is yet powerful, as indicated by the “chill” that prompts straight females of every age, race and level of commitment in the book’s modern setting to turn against their own partners with quick and righteous frigidity.
Just a few pages in — and that old maxim about books and their covers aside — one senses that Wolitzer’s motivations are highly personal.
For starters, the jacket photo is one of a fifties-ish woman who “lives in New York City” and whose characters, young and old, all seem to share the wistfully jaded perspective of one who realizes late in the game that her own relationships haven’t escaped the cruel effects of time and familiarity. It is this presiding notion that gives the book both its beautifully startling observations on human sexuality and its somewhat petulant reluctance to offer much more than a “sex is such a mystery” explanation for the fantastic unraveling that’s taken place.
In brief mentions of the current American conflict in Afghanistan (which later feel obligatory), it seems that Wolitzer is about to draw a parallel to support the idea that abstinence might somehow make soldiers less aggressive, but instead her narrative abandons its further-reaching potential and circles back into the satisfyingly superficial realm of fiction, where questions are much more fun than answers. Grade: B-