I read Emily’s review of this novel by Meg Wolitzer at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads) about a month ago, and wasn’t sure whether or not to read it. Then I realized it was in a box of ARC books that Emily was so generous as to send me. And I saw it on a list of possible nominations for the Indie Lit Awards at Fingers & Prose. So I thought I might as well check it out.
Like a lot of reviews I’ve read so far, I’m just not sure what to think about The Uncoupling. Everyone keeps saying that, and yet everyone seems to be talking about it. What’s that about? Well, the sex I imagine. Or the lack of it.
In The Uncoupling, a suburban New Jersey community goes all Lysistrata. The women turn away from sex, but not really to protest any war. One teenager turns away kind of to protest the war. Also, the local high school is gearing up to perform Lysistrata. As you might imagine, these two events are connected. The story ranges across families in the town, but focuses mainly on Dory and Robby Lang and their dauther, Wilma. Dory and Robby teach at the high school and up until the whole Lysistrata thing, had a pretty good sex life for an older, married couple.
When I was in college, I went through at least 6-7 possible majors at any given moment of time. These included biology, sociology, English, philosophy, and classical studies. My language was, in fact, ancient Greek. I read parts of the Oresteia in Greek, but not Lysistrata. Here’s what I remember about Greek plays.
1. Greek plays are not particularly character driven, and neither is The Uncoupling.
2. They usually have a chorus, and The Uncoupling also kind of does. There are other women turning away from sex, and they don’t hang out an intone things together, but they do eventually kind of talk about the whole lack of sex.
3. Like many great works of art, Greek plays reflected societies working through some of their issues on the stage. Is The Uncoupling trying to work through some of our issues? Maybe, but for me, the novel doesn’t do it as well as most Greek plays.
I guess the best way I can think of to express how I feel about The Uncoupling is that it’s thin. It’s like there are lots of empty spaces, but not the good kind of empty spaces. It’s like there’s just stuff that should have been there for me and isn’t. Maybe this is a reflection of a kind of minimalist style that would suit a Greek play. Not about character, right? But it didn’t work for me. Such rich material, such an interesting concept. There was so much more I wanted to know about how everyone was thinking and feeling that I just didn’t get.
And then what the heck is going on with the Farrest thing? I kept thinking maybe there was a forest in Lysistrata, like in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a place where you wander around in debauchery, but I don’t think so. Farest is a virtual forest online, a place where the students go as avatars (a centaur, a hawk) and hang out. There’s this very small theme in The Uncoupling about generation gaps and technology. Folks keep wondering whether things are getting better or not? But like other parts of the novel, this theme is just, thin. Holey. And not in a good way.
Here was the best thing about this novel for me. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the novel where one of the characters, Ruth Wink, describes being in the bathroom, peeing, and being observed by her two small sons:
“They took her full measure when she stood with her blond pubic hair exposed for a half second. No part of her was more unusual to them than any other part; all were compelling. They owned her, and in the tiny room they flanked her, asserting their ownership. When she left the bathroom they followed hard behind; they gave chase.”
At first, you think it’s okay. Ruth seems to think it’s okay at that point in the novel. Later you learn that it was actually not okay (which is another thing about the book…it seems that maybe you were supposed to know on some level that Ruth wasn’t happy with this…conveying that a character is lying to herself is hard, but Wolitzer didn’t pull it off for me here or anywhere in the book where it seems later you’re meant to believe that the characters were lying to themselves). Later, Ruth tells her husband she needs a lock on their bedroom door. Doesn’t sound like much, but can you totally understand how important that can be? She says:
“The problem is that I never really parceled myself out properly to all of you…With everyone all over me, touching me; I know that. One day it will be much less intense. But I just don’t want to wait it out. I don’t want to have to tolerate my home life. That’s not something I ever wanted.”
I love that Ruth says this. The scene in the bathroom earlier is a great encapsulation of what parenting can feel like at times. Just let me pee in peace, for Christ’s sake! This feeling at the end for Ruth, that maybe she needed not to have her children in bed with her and to be able to pee in peace, was about the only part of the novel that I could really relate to, that touched me on anything but a, “Hmm, interesting,” kind of level.
So, I would not vote for The Uncoupling for the Indie Lit Awards, had I the power to do such things. I wanted it to be a book that it was not. And now I’m off to pee with the door shut.
P.S. I just noticed in my review that I had nothing to say about either gender or anti-war ideology in relation to this novel. I have to confess, neither of those things seems particularly important to the novel, which is another way in which it was thin. So I could add those in, but I didn’t feel they were particularly central to the novel itself.