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.
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.