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Meg Wolitzer
The Uncoupling
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Riverhead / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-594-48788-0
Publication Date: 04-05-2011
288 Pages ; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 05-15-2011

Index:  General Fiction  Fantasy

There is a gentle lull in the evening, a moment when it seems that time halts, when the men and women in the houses of a suburban landscape move from the quotidian reality of jobs and bustle to a more intimate setting. The bonds of marriage, of acquaintance, of friendship, of familiarity wrap themselves around the couples in these houses without their knowing. The emotions flow with a disarming ease, and relationships settle into a satisfying familiarity. So long as Meg Wolitzer is not in town.

Meg Wolitzer's 'The Uncoupling' (Riverhead / Random House ; April 8, 2011 ; $25.95) explores the emotional landscape of an American suburb with precision and imagination, using a simple genre trope to unlock the lives of an amazingly engaging cast of characters. With one simple twist of the key, Wolitzer turns everyday lives into compelling stories that she weaves with authority and humor into a disarmingly enchanting novel. She leaves sentiment at the door, but within the world she creates readers will discover the true hearts of men and women. It's a learning experience for readers of both sexes to have the inner lives of the opposing sex so thoroughly explored. Prepare to be better prepared.

At the heart of the novel are Robby and Dory Lang, the two married, popular teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in the suburb of Stellar Plains, New Jersey. Their daughter, Willa is doing well enough, given that she attends the school where her parents teach. Their friends in the high school and the town are nice, quirky, and fun to read about as we get to know them. This is America, now. All their lives are seemingly headed into a quietly satisfying normal procession. Wolitzer's evocation of this is magical and engaging.

Even the new drama teacher at the high school, Fran Heller, who has a rather unusual marriage, doesn't seem to stir things up too much. But her decision to stage Lysistrata, Aristophanes' comedy in which the women of Greece decide to withhold sex from the men to end the Peloponnesian War, seems to have an unanticipated side effect. A spell is cast over the women of Stellar Plains, and one by one they decide that they no longer desire sex with the men in their lives.

'The Uncoupling' uses the spell to cast a spell over the reader, to give readers a new perception of the relations between men and women. As the spell moves through town, lives are changed and those under its thrall look at their old selves and old lives with a fresh perspective. Wolitzer gently and disarmingly destroys the bonds that hold marriages and lives together. It's a Relationship Apocalypse.

'The Uncoupling' manages the unique feat of being both utterly real and under-cuttingly surreal. The smart, grounded characters are all fun to be with. Dory and Robby are our rocks, even as they and their marriage seem to crumble, which is part of the charm of the whole enterprise. Liane, the school psychologist, is having affairs with three men, one married, all now wondering, "What the hell?" Wolitzer gets inside the hearts and bedrooms of the sort of people you might actually meet, and makes every one of them compelling and entertaining.

The driving mystery of the plot — what exactly is the "the spell," and how will it play out, is superbly handled. Wolitzer writes something along the lines of a fairy tale for adults. She creates a simple rule set and then plays by those rules, all the while keeping readers engaged as to the source of the spell. She's smart enough to play fair and offers thoroughly satisfying answers to all the questions she raises, natural and supernatural. She has a light hand with the elements of the fantastic that she uses with precision and intelligence.

For all the background nature of the fantastic in 'The Uncoupling,' ultimately the novel is a triumph of fantasy, precisely because Wolitzer knows that she has a powerful tool to examine the characters her readers come to know and love. The spell she casts is not just over her characters, but over her readers as well. We are all captivated, but not by some external power. Those around us every day of our lives have fantastic powers — to command our time, our attention and our love.

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