When I received The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer to review, I read it almost instantly. But let’s be honest, that was back in January and I’m writing this review from this cold, dark place known as the depths of winter. I’m hoping that my future, April self still feels the same way about this book, 3 months later, and is also slightly warmer.
So this is an exercise. An exercise in the staying power of reviews. Perhaps I’ll come back and edit this review before it posts and let you know if I still feel the same way. Maybe I won’t remember any details from The Uncoupling, or maybe I will remember everything.
I always want to be able to come up with those fabulous one sentence descriptions that are quoted on book covers, but I’m not always that clever. For me, it’s difficult to sum up everything I feel about a book in one succinct, perfect line. But indulge me, let me try: Meg Wolitzer deftly creates a conceit that presents the mystery of desire, both its onset and its disappearance, in a playful way that nearly captures the joy and absolute sadness that accompanies that desire.
How’d I do? Slap that on your book cover.
Humor aside, The Uncoupling is the story of a small, progressive New Jersey town where all of the women are suddenly put under a spell that makes them want to refrain from any and all sexual acts. Coincidentally (read: not a coincidence, at all), the new local drama teacher is putting on an adaptation of the play “Lysistrata”, in which the women become celibate to stop a war from happening.
This is not the kind of book that you write a book review about and then move on. It’s the kind of book you want to discuss, that you want to pick apart and debate. There are things about this novel that I loved, because, yes, let’s talk about female desire. Please! But there were also things I did not love. So there are two discussions that I want to have here and they involve spoilers, so stop reading now if you want to remain pure for when you read this book. Because, really, you should read this book.
First let’s talk about identifying setting and time markers in novels. This discussion raged a few months back when Freedom was everywhere. Some people loved how now it was, with references to Priuses and Obama and Twitter; I was one of them. Just before finishing The Uncoupling, I also finished Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan, which had such a definitive time and place (midwestern US, 2005) and it showed. The Uncoupling tries to be a little bit more subtle about it. Though it’s setting is decidedly New Jersey, instead of mention actual products and websites that populate our daily life, Wolitzer invents them, coming up with a fake name for items as ubiquitous as a soda brand. Honestly, I find this to be infinitely more distracting than just having the brand name in the book. Now, Wolitzer did invent a Second Life like website for teens called Farrest, which is okay because something like that doesn’t actually exist. But when your characters are getting annoyed because someone stole their Diet Splurge? Please.
I’ll readily admit that that is personal preference. It in no way affected the way I felt about the book, but it is something I want to talk about. If you were an author and you came to me and you said, “Listen, I’ve been thinking here about including brand names in my book, don’t you think they’ll date me?” And I’ll respond, “Look, authorfriend, it sounds stupid when you’re characters are drinking Diet Splurge when we all know they’re drinking Diet Mountain Dew, even though it tastes awful.” And we will go on being friends and your book will sell millions of copies. Probably.
Now let’s really get into the discussion of this novel. On a certain level I’m afraid that I didn’t “get” this book, because even though I enjoyed it and I thought it was funny, I’m not entirely sure what the point is. As I said in my one sentence review, I do believe it truly is about desire and the different ways that men and women approach desire, but I’m not entirely convinced that this was the way to talk about it. I loved the tongue-in-cheek prose and I loved the mysterious spell that overtook everyone, but at the same time, I hated that spell. I hated that spell because it trivialized a real thing that happens to women. I hated that at the end of the novel, the spell is lifted and everyone goes back to the way things were before, full of desire for one another. I hated that we didn’t actually have a real discussion of female desire.
But I know, this is humor. But what I don’t understand is shouldn’t a book that is applying humor and fantasy to talk about real problems then address those problems as real? Why did the mystery have to be explained? In the same way I felt cheated at the end of Life of Pi, I felt cheated at the end of The Uncoupling. I am smart enough to infer what happened, please don’t lay it all out for me. And what did we conclude at the end? What was missing here was a frank conclusion about sex and desire and not even enough humor to carry the book through its own conclusion.
In the end though, I did really enjoy reading this book. I thought it was funny, the characters compelling and the conceit interesting and unique. I loved the connection to the ancient Greek play, though I did at times think it went a little too literal with it. No, it wasn’t perfect, but this flawed novel is an excellent read. And one that I want everyone to read, if only so we can debate and argue about it. I also know that I will be picking up every book that Meg Wolitzer has ever written.
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for sending me The Uncoupling for review.