17 March 2011

Book Review in Brief: The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

I've been debating for about a week whether to review this book or not.  I've never devoted time to writing a negative review before, and I confess I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea even now, as I compose this post.  I'm a bookseller -- which means mostly that I don't think books I don't like are necessarily bad.  It just means I'm not the proper reader for them.  I don't think I could sum up my feeling towards this book better than Publisher's Weekly did back in January: "a plodding story with a killer hook."  In other (read: my) words, it was too potentially interesting not to be better than it was.

Stellar Plains, New Jersey, is a progressive suburban town.  When the drama club at Eleanor Roosevelt High School decides to perform Aristophanes' Lysistrata, a play in which the women of Greece withhold sex from the men in order to end the Peleponnesian War, the women (and girls) of Stellar Plains mysteriously lose interest in all sexual activity, much to the dismay of the men (and boys) in their lives.  The young lead in the play then decides shortly before opening night that she wants to go on a sex strike to protest the war in Afghanistan.

Metalife imitating meta-art.  Intriguing, no?  In the opening chapters I felt this book was positively humming and vibrant with possibility.  The characters, mostly students and the middle-aged teachers at ERHS, are likeable and the prose style is serviceable.  But somehow it all fell apart for me.  The narration moves randomly from third person omniscient to third person limited and back again, for starters.  I definitely do not like inconsistencies like that the draw me out of the story.

Secondly, why on earth does Wolitzer not spend more than two throwaway sentences addressing same-sex relationships in this book?  What could have been an interesting and topical jumping off point instead feels stilted and limiting.  The author basically acknowledges that there's one gay couple who go on coupling as usual, and though she mentions once that women not involved sexually with men are not affected, not once are lesbians mentioned, and their omission seems to imply that they aren't seen as part of the "perfectly healthy, normal women and teenage girls"who are affected (quotation from the publisher's marketing).

Thirdly, as we get the musings of many of the women about what's happening to them and the various excuses they give the men in their lives for avoiding sex, the female characters rarely express curiosity about what is happening, and not once does the idea of a more, ahem, self-serve approach come up in the story.  Really?  Healthy women with healthy sexual appetites (one of the characters loves sleeping with her four different lovers for the different styles they employ in and out of the bedroom) go for more than two months without wanting to take matters into their own hands? 

Lastly, for most of the book I kept wondering why I continued to read it.  It's an easy and quick enough novel to read, and I think I kept hoping that I was just about to get to the interesting part.  The interesting part never really came.  Pun intended.

This book comes out in April from Penguin books.  I read the book in ARC form, sent to me by my sales rep.  I should note that I might be in the minority with my views, as this title is one of the top recommended titles from indie booksellers for the month of April.  


  1. I find non-positive reviews just as helpful as positive ones. Sometimes what a person dislikes could be what I like.
    Also, there are a trillion books out there! We all could do with help to weed out our personal mind-wasters.

  2. I absolutely loved Wolitzer's first novel, Sleepwalking. I liked her YA novel Caribou, and everything else has just been meh for me.

  3. Well, this is kind of quandary. The premise sounds really intereating, but it sounds like she really doesn't carry it off very well. I'll have to get this one from the library so I don't feel bad about it if I don't actually finish reading it. We read Lysistrata with Catherine Freis at Millsaps. Fun!

  4. You're right. There's one in my exciting box! Thanks, again!


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