Friday, December 30, 2011

THE UNCOUPLING by Meg Wolitzer (2011) Riverhead Books, 271 pages

In the Fall during the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto a savvy editor (who works for a different publishing house) recommended Meg Wolitzer's books to me and I finally made my way to her most recent one THE UNCOUPLING during the Christmas holidays.

A social satirist with the aplomb of Richard Ford, Wolitzer enchanted me from her opening sentence: "People like to warn you that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness." Right? Right.

Enter Fran Heller, a new drama teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt H.S. in small-town New Jersey, a woman with the balls to select LYSISTRATA (the Aristophanes comedy in which women stop having sex with men in order to end a war) as the school play. Curiously, a spell seems to be cast over the women in the school, including Dory Lang, a happily married Literature teacher who is abruptly disinterested in sharing a bed with her longtime spouse Robby with whom she previously slept "together frequently, happily, and not just gently, but with the same gruff, fierce purpose as always."

Not only does Wolitzer satirize small town life and the politics of high school as convincingly as Tom Perrotta did in ELECTION, but she also shines the light on the inarticulate, hormonal messiness of adolescence through the actions of Dory and Robby's daughter Willa and Fran's son Eli, "their mouths having not yet opened onto the hot surprise of other mouths, their bodies still unfolded and unrevealed."

When Marissa Clayborn, the talented, gorgeous lead in LYSISTRATA literally takes to her bed in public protest, Fran Heller casts smart, shy chorus member Willa in her place, a decision that has both intended and unintended consequences.

Like the fictional reviewer of the Eleanor Roosevelt H.S. production of Aristophanes' comedy who praises Willa's "heady and almost breathless" performance as Lysistrata, I suggest that Meg Wolitzer is a novelist "who compels us with her urgency, integrity and beauty" in THE UNCOUPLING.

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