'The Uncoupling': a New Jersey high school under 'Lysistrata's' spell
Meg Wolitzer's novel "The Uncoupling" imagines what happens when a suburban New Jersey high school comes under the spell of "Lysistrata," the Aristophanes comedy in which Greek women scheme to force their men to end an ongoing war by withholding sexual favors. Wolitzer will read Monday at the Seattle Public Library's Central branch.
Special to The Seattle Times
Meg WolitzerThe author of "The Uncoupling" will read at 7 p.m. Monday at the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Co-sponsored by the University Book Store; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
by Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead, 288 pp., $25.95
Imagine that a high-school play could cast a spell, transforming not just its cast but also the faculty members around it, mysteriously changing their lives. Such is the irresistible premise of Meg Wolitzer's ninth novel, "The Uncoupling," in which a suburban New Jersey community is altered by a production of "Lysistrata" and a sudden cold wind that began to blow "in and out of bedrooms, under blanket, nightgowns, skin, and it would keep doing that for weeks, making its circuit, taking its time."
"Lysistrata" is, of course, the Aristophanes comedy in which a group of Greek women scheme to force their men to end an ongoing war by withholding sexual favors. An odd choice for teenagers, thinks some of the faculty of Eleanor Roosevelt High School (known as "Elro") — but the new drama teacher, Fran Heller, tells the students that the play's themes "are still sadly relevant today, what with our lousy wars." Marissa Clayborn, the confident, beautiful girl who always stars in the school plays, is cast in the lead role, and all seems to be business as usual.
Until that wind starts blowing, and English teacher Dory Lang turns away from her sweet husband, Robby, in bed, and school psychologist Leanne Bannerjee rethinks the wisdom of her affair with the principal, and gym teacher/harried mother Ruth Winik tells her husband "Please don't ever ask me again" and Chloe Vincent and Max Holleran, the hot couple of the junior class, announce that they are no longer "an entity," and even the unruffled Marissa changes her well-ordered life, finding a way to use her bed as a force for good.
All of this leads to a wonderfully funny final act at the play's premiere, in which this midwinter night's dream comes to an end and the dreamers wake, happy yet forever altered. (Someone, chiming in to a mounting chorus of voices, asks the unanswered but very valid question: "How can the women of Greece actually 'stop sleeping' with the men, if all the men are away at war to begin with?")
"The Uncoupling" is a smooth and often enchanting read that reveals a wry understanding of modern relationships and generations. Wolitzer's teens are all obsessed with the virtual world "Farrest" (Marissa's avatar is a soaring hawk) while their parents wonder why, if the kids wanted "a real forest spelled the normal way" they don't just take a picnic lunch to the nearby nature preserve. You feel like you know these people, this community, these anxious 40-somethings watching the flushed-faced teens. For the young ones, Dory ponders, there's still something brand-new ahead — "the love that lay waiting like a web page as yet undesigned, or maybe even like a forest as yet unwalked in."