The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

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.

Comic-A-Week Jan 23-29 – Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea

One thing I have learned so far during this Comic-A-Week project is that reviewing comics and graphic novels is hard. What is the most important element of the story? Is it the illustration? Is it the story? Of course, it’s both. It’s the way the dialog and story interact with each other, it’s the way the art adds to the words and vice versa.

After being a Spanish major for so long, it takes a lot to impress me with magical realism. I’ve read the best, so if you’re going to add to the genre, you better do a damn fine job. Fortunately Urrea and Cardinale’s Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush did impress me and, thankfully, it is an excellent example of the way in which art can perfectly compliment a story.

Urrea and Cardinale are pulling on a lot of traditions here, but they manage to create a story that is not only charming, but original. Like any myth, Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush takes a physical object and a real person, plus the fantastic elements, to represent something bigger, though I don’t want to give away what that is. The magical realism in Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush is playful and, well, magical.

The art is absolutely gorgeous. Christopher Cardinale also paints murals, so it’s difficult not to think immediately of Diego Rivera, husband of Frida Kahlo. Even though his art clearly evoked elements of Rivera’s style, Cardinale is very much his own artist. I loved his use of expressive, large faces and the color work is gorgeous. I often prefer black and white comics, but I probably wouldn’t if every comic were as beautifully colored as Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush.

I’ve almost been avoiding Urrea’s work because I have never been sure how I would like it. Now that I have read Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush, I fully expect to pick the rest of his work in the future.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Devourer of Books and You’ve Gotta Read This! also have posts on Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush. Do you? Leave your link in the comments and I will add your link here.

Call me Zits in Sherman Alexie’s Flight

Sherman Alexie is one of those authors that everyone loves and for good reason.  He’s ambitious, witty, fearless and unbelievably creative.  I’ve been interested in picking up more of his books recently, especially after reading and loving The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianTen Little  Indians and some of Alexie’s poetry last year.  I’ve also been listening to Nancy Pearl’s podcasts on my commute and one of her older archived interviews was with Sherman Alexie right after he published Flight, which is, as far as I can tell, one of his least popular books to date.  It did not sell well and has received very mixed reviews.  Something about the way Alexie talked about his narrator Zits really made me want to read it and I suggest everyone go watch the video!  If that doesn’t make you want to read Flight, I’m not sure what will.

“Call me Zits,” the novel begins, introducing us to one of the most original narrators I’ve read in a long time.  He’s a half-white-half-indian teenager who has been wronged by life, a not uncommon tale, of an absent father and a loving mother who dies when Zits  is young, forcing him into an uncertain life going from foster care family to foster care family.  After one particular incident with a new foster care family, Zits is arrested and while in jail he meets Justice.  Justice convinces him that he can bring his mother back, but only if he kills someone in a revenge murder.  So Zits shoots up a bank and is killed by a police officer, dying immediately.

But that’s not where Zits’s story ends, that’s only where it begins.  As Alexie explains in the video, he becomes “unstuck in time” like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, going from one moment in American history to the next.  At each moment, he experiences a revenge killing of sorts, making him relive the moment when he made the decision to shoot the bank.  Zits inhabits the body of all sorts of men and boys throughout history – men who betray their wives, soldiers who betray their army, even a little boy who is asked to do an unspeakable thing.  Each time he feels the guilt multiplied until he cannot understand making that decision over and over and over again.

One thing I think is clear from reading Flight is that we are all capable of revenge.  It can be a small thing, it does not have to be as big as murder, but that is a human feeling.  It does not matter what race you are or what gender you are or what age you are.  It is a powerful human emotion that can make anyone do something they will regret.  Zits’s story ends well, at least he tells us it does.  We are left at the end, unsure of what to believe or knowing what was real.  In the end, though, it does not matter if it was real or all in Zits’s head.  It does not matter if he killed in 2007 or the 1970s or the 1700s, or if he killed at all.  What is important is what he learned along the way – the danger of exacting revenge for something that no one could stop and the ability to forgive.  At least we hope he learned something.

Alexie, through Zits, provides so many insights that make Zits completely believable as a character, such as:

And then it’s the white kid and me.

He sits on the floor at one end of the cell.  I sit on the floor at t he other end.  He stares at me for a long time. He’s studying me.

“What are you looking at?”  I ask.

“Your face,” he says.

“What about my face?”

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” he says.  “They got all sorts of medicine now.  I see it on TV.  They got miracle zit stuff.  Clear your face right up.”

I’ve seen those commercials too.  The ones where famous people like P. Diddy and Jessica Simpson and Brooke Shields talk about their zits and how they got cured by this miracle face cream made from sacred Mexican mud and the sweet spit of a prom queen.  And, yeah, I’d love to buy that stuff, but it costs fifty bucks a jar.  These days, you see a kid with bad acne, and you know he’s poor.  Rich kids don’t get acne anymore.  Not really.  They just get a few spots now and again. (21)

This novel is so unique, drawing on influences from literature and popular culture, but making it into a completely original story that encompasses many aspects of our culture in one short novel.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Other reviews: Bibliofreak.

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