When the elliptical new drama teacher at Stellar Plains High School chooses for the school play Lysistratathe comedy by Aristophanes in which women stop having sex with men in order to end a wara strange spell seems to be cast over the school. Or, at least, over the women. One by one throughout the high school community, perfectly healthy, normal women and teenage girls turn away from their husbands and boyfriends in the bedroom, for reasons they don't really understand. As the women worry over their loss of passion, and the men become by turns unhappy, offended, and above all, confused, both sides are forced to look at their shared history, and at their sexual selves in a new light.
As she did to such acclaim with the New York Times bestseller The Ten-Year Nap, Wolitzer tackles an issue that has deep ramifications for women's lives, in a way that makes it funny, riveting, and totally freshallowing us to see our own lives through her insightful lens.
Meg Wolitzer is the author of eight previous novels, including The Ten-Year Nap, The Position, and The Wife. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. She lives in New York City.
I kept hearing stories: How, at a cooking class, one woman had apparently told everyone that she had given up "that part" of her life forever. All around the room, the other women nodded empathetically; they knew what "that part" meant. How, over drinks, a friend had confided, "I would pay someone to have sex with my husband." How, on the message boards devoted to young motherhood and all its accoutrements, women described never wanting to be touched by adult male hands again.
Something was in the air, or at least in the conversation, and the prurient part of me was interested. But so was the writer part.
The subject of women withholding sex from men is an ancient one; in Aristophanes' comic play Lysistrata, the title character encourages the women of Greece to stop sleeping with men in order to end the Peloponnesian War. There have been more recent examples of sex strikes around the world, both in art and in lifenot all involving war. What if the women's reasons for turning away from men are hard to explain? What if they're emotional, or biological, or have something to do with being angry at men for running the world and basically ruining it? And then, of course, there's despair, and vulnerability, and the fact that childbearing days have come to an end, so sex for its own sake needs to be really wonderful, or else why bother.
Women's magazines have long been on the diminished-desire beat. The articles they publish seem to be increasingly brain science–based, in addition to including traditional anecdotes from unhappy bedrooms and professional advice from a kind and knowledgeable therapist. (The word "candles" might get mentioned, prescriptively.) But what interested me most as a novelist wasn't primarily the latest psychological or neurochemical research into female arousal, or lack thereof. Instead, I just wanted to take a look at the way female desire changes over time. And it definitely does change. There may not always be an outright war between men and women, but something's certainly going on now, in "that part" of women's lives, and I wanted to see what it was.
That's what I've explored in The Uncoupling. I decided to work Lysistrata into it, at least around the edges, imagining what would happen if the play cast a spell over a group of girls and women in that same invisible way that love and the beginnings of desire seem to cast a spell, too, entrancing their subjects, changing the way they think about themselves and the lives they've been living.
- Think about the women in the novel. Each of them reacts to the loss of desire in a different way. How does each woman's reaction reflect the stage of life she is in? Which woman do you think is the most changed at the end of the novel?
- Willa and Miles both participate in an online world and communicate with each other electronically. How do you think electronic communication changes how relationships are built? Can it be a helpful tool? Can it be problematic?
- Dory and Robby seem to be the perfect couple at the start of the book. How does the author signal that there might be problems beneath the surface? Think about other books you've read that feature married couples who start off happily married. How are those marriages similar to Dory and Robby's? How are they different?
- Think about the character of Fran. Do you think she's a force in the book for good? Do you think she's fully aware of the consequences of what she's doing? What price does she pay for her actions?
- The play Lysistrata figures prominently in the book. What do you know about the play Lysistrata? How does the action of the play relate to the events of the book? Why do you think the author chose this play to be central to her novel? How does Lysistrata relate to the modern world?
- Think about the spell. How is each woman affected by the spell? What is the significance of the moment each woman comes under the power of the spell? What is the spell a metaphor for? What do you think the author's intention is?
- While the spell affects the relationship between men and women, The Uncoupling also deals with the relationship between mothers and their children. How is Dory and Willa's relationship affected by the spell? What other mother and child relationships are in the book? How are those relationships changed by the end?
- Neither Marissa nor Leanne is a committed relationship at the start of the book. How does the spell change their view of their own sexuality? How is it different from how the married women are changed?
- The spell of course is fantasy, but think about real-life parallels. Are there examples in your life where you can see a similar "spell" at work? What are the causes? What are the solutions?
- How does Wolitzer compare the effects of the spell of Lysistrata to the spell of falling in loveor out of love? Are there other experiences in life that make you feel as if you're falling under enchantment? The spell of a good book, for instance, of the spell of a play?