A group of women and teenage girls suddenly lose interest in sex in Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Uncoupling (Riverhead Books). They are all teachers, counselors or students at a New Jersey high school; and their abrupt uncoupling (confusing husbands and boyfriends) coincides with the new drama teacher’s choosing of the school play, “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes, an ancient Greek drama set in Athens. Yes, there is magical realism afoot.
The female characters in the play, led by Lysistrata, stage a sexual strike to end the Peloponnesian War; and the strike is a sacrifice to these lusty ladies longing for the touch of their men. They yearn. For the novel’s characters, however, sex is an instantly forgotten pleasure with rare moments of desire (“generic moments of longing”) like the odd twitches of a phantom limb barely felt beneath the new prosthesis. How did that happen?
The drama teacher is a bit of a witch, responsible for the mysterious cold wind that blows up the women’s skirts and into their hearts, one at a time. Wolitzer is such a wonderful writer that she makes this dramatic device work—as well as John Updike did in The Witches of Eastwick, another witty novel using the supernatural in exploring female sexuality. I believed the women shut down sexually—and was not surprised that, in doing so, they opened up to so many other possibilities in their lives. The teen queen turns to political activism, a shy girl discovers her acting ability. They are like students in an all-girl high school, relieved of the need to attract boys.
All the characters are finely drawn, but the mid-life women interest me most. They could be married to the male SexyPrime readers writing to ask me, “What the hell is wrong with my wife and why doesn’t she want to have sex with me anymore?” (If you have read Abandoned Husband's story, you will see how he fits right in.)
Wolitzer describes the women’s process of turning away from the hurt and angry men, good men, feeling bereft and betrayed in their cold beds. In real life, women either turn deeply into themselves—into “finding” themselves—or to a new man or another woman. Not often do they turn back to the husbands, not cruel and abusive, simply regular men who no longer excite. The author explores the dynamic of the sexually disinterested wife without offering solutions. I get the impression that she would find the standard advice—date nights, romantic gestures, sexy games—a rather sad form of “settling”.
What is the origin of the cold wind blowing up the skirts of so many women at midlife? How did once-sexy young wives turn into middle-aged judgmental prudes in their forties (sometimes sooner)?
Surely you’ve heard their litany of complaints: Husbands who masturbate to porn, selfish and inept lovers who can’t find their clitoris or G spot, the domestic taming of desire, sometimes his as well as hers—and the lethal effects of relationship issues creating anger and frustration, chipping away at lust.
Rarely does anyone say: The sex was never that good; I didn’t have as many orgasms as I faked and so I shut down. But that is often the underlying truth, the big dirty secret midlife women hide like an enormous dust bunny under the marital bed. Perhaps they tell their best friend or the next man, but not the husband who shared the bed but never looked beneath it. The men who ask, “Why doesn’t my wife want to have sex anymore?” don’t want to hear the truth anyway.
A man I’ve been coaching said: “The sex was always great; we just didn’t have it often enough.”
Did she think the sex was great too?
“Oh, yes. She just didn’t get horny more than once a month.”
Yet when she left him, she said, “We could stay together like this if you only want sex three or four times a year because that is where we’re headed.” I suppose she was anticipating only getting “horny” on a quarterly basis now.
I nudge him to ask the obvious question: If the sex was “great”, why didn’t she want it more often? He resists the suggestion.
“I don’t understand why she left,” he said.
I thought of this passage from The Uncoupling—
[When a character heard about a couple divorcing over sex]….”Still she would say, ‘There must be something else,’ for how terrible it was to give up a good and loving marriage because of sex. Because of no sex. Many people stayed married forever in low-sex or no-sex marriages.”
He doesn’t want that, of course, but he wants his wife to come back to him, morphed into the once-sexy young wife. Magic realism. It won’t happen. Wherever the cold wind originated almost doesn’t matter, it has blown up her skirt and into her heart.
I won’t spoil the book for you by telling you if any of the characters get their old magic back. But read it; you’ll love it. Meg Wolitzer is one of my favorite novelists. If you are just discovering her, you have a lot of good reading ahead of you in catching up with her backlist.
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