As our 10-year-old wars in Afghanistan and Iraq bleed into a new conflict in Libya, maybe we could use something more creative than “the surge” to bring peace. For the weary women in Aristophanes’ ancient comedy “Lysistrata,” the answer was an anti-surge: a sex strike until the men lay down their arms. It worked 2,400 years ago — in the bawdy Greek play — but in the theatre of foreign policy, America has perfected a method of prosecuting foreign wars without inconveniencing most of its citizens. If we’re not going to give up shopping, we’re certainly not going to give up sex.
Those distant wars provide the faint political backdrop for Meg Wolitzer’s romantic comedy “The Uncoupling.” It’s set in Stellar Plains, N.J., a stellar suburban community where the new drama teacher is directing a production of “Lysistrata.” For a first-year teacher at a public high school, that seems about as likely as a sixth-grade production of “Hair.” (In my high school, we had to change the lyrics of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” to “Propane,” but that was the Midwest.) In any case, this isn’t the only element of magic that Wolitzer introduces into her charming novel about love gone stale.
In the opening pages, an enervating spell falls over the women of Stellar Plains, sapping their libido and making them realize they never want to be touched again. “The spell had started to come over all of them,” Wolitzer writes, “seizing them in their separate beds, changing them in an instant. Starting that night, and continuing for quite a while afterward, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped and the windows shook like crazy in their frames, and all over that town, you could hear the word ‘no.’ ”
Of course, nice suburban people don’t talk about their sex lives, so even as rehearsals for “Lysistrata” continue through this long, cold winter, nobody makes the connection between Aristophanes’ comedy and the little tragedies playing out in bedrooms all over town. For Wolitzer, though, it’s a chance to eavesdrop on what’s not gettin’ down, and she uses these boudoirs of quiet desperation as a way of framing her witty commentary on the challenge of keeping romance alive.
At the center of the novel are Dory and Robby Lang, happily married, popular teachers whose sex life has evaporated like a summer puddle. “Under the power of the spell,” Wolitzer writes, “all Dory could think was that sleeping with your husband after so many years was not at all like sleeping with him when you were young. It was no longer effortless; it was full of effort.” Robby and his wife never talk about it — the change comes on so suddenly — but the whole structure of their marriage begins to strain. “Sexlessness had awakened some churlishness in him,” Dory realizes. “Was this all it took in order to find a bad side of a man? Was it like depriving him of an essential nutrient?”
Wolitzer moves through the lives of other women at school, filling out the range of romantic experiences, maybe just a little too schematically. There’s the chubby college counselor whose husband cruelly notes, “You’ve really let yourself go”; the gorgeous school psychologist, who enjoys juggling several partners at once; the ex-lesbian gym teacher, who’s raising three demanding boys; and Dory’s shy teenage daughter, who’s experiencing the first stirrings of love. Under the cold hand of this strange spell, they all realize they’ve had enough. One by one, night after night, young and old, they turn aside, like “Manchurian Candidates of midlife married abstinence.”
The drama teacher tells her students that “Lysistrata” is “a comedy, yes. But what it’s about is something quite serious,” and the same thing might be said about “The Uncoupling.” In the light patter of her novel, Wolitzer diagnoses the troubles that ruin so many marriages, break up so many families. Although she can satirize the bland advice of women’s magazines with perfect pitch, she’s not above dishing out her own Oprah-approved admonitions: “The most well-meaning and loving couples in the world started to let everything get too familiar and erode,” she writes. “They let everything fall into comfort or indifference or chaos or disrepair. They’d had no innate sense of how to protect the thing they claimed to care about above all else — and instead they’d found many, many ways to let it rot.”
“The Uncoupling” offers a lot more foreplay than climax, but Wolitzer is a tender, engaging narrator. Amid her amusing riffs on suburban sexuality, some of the best passages reflect on parents’ befuddlement with contemporary teenagers, these precious young people who seem so easily aroused and yet so easily distracted. “How could you make love,” Dory wonders, “if you couldn’t pay attention?” School administrators find themselves charged with protecting children in a values-neutral climate they can’t understand. The college counselor thinks,“In the past, sex just seemed like it was so much more extracurricular. It was almost like Model U.N. — something that a number of them signed up to do after the school day was over. It served no actual purpose, but they enjoyed it.”
This is the suburban comedy of Tom Perrotta in a flannel nightgown. “The Uncoupling” provides the charm of recognizing your own nervous tics and anxieties laid out by an author who’s not out to get you. It’s all quite endearing, but I couldn’t help wish that the novel’s political prick were a little sharper. Despite the military theme of the play at the center of “The Uncoupling,” our battles in Iraq and Afghanistan remain mere backdrops — like hearing the Muzak version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” at the grocery store. At one point, Wolitzer seems about to explore something tough and complex about war, our responsibility for it, and the relationship between desire and combat. But then, suddenly, that line of inquiry goes AWOL. With the arrival of a deus ex machina that only Euripides could love, our ongoing wars pass entirely out of the story’s attention, and “The Uncoupling” snuggles back into the downy comfort of its domestic concerns, becoming more an example of America’s self-absorption than a critique of it. All is healed in the bedroom, harmony reigns again in Stellar Plains, and if our soldiers keep dying in faraway places for nebulous reasons, well, that’s something to think about, but not tonight, dear. Let’s just pamper ourselves.
Charles, The Post’s fiction editor, reviews books every Wednesday.
By Meg Wolitzer.
Riverhead. 271 pp. $25.95.