The women of Stellar Plains, New Jersey are preoccupied with sex: how much they are having, who they are having it with, whether they are enjoying it, and what to do to get more. From teenage girls who are just beginning their sexual lives to long-married women for whom sex is a distant memory; it is on the minds of the women of the entire town this December. (To be fair, sex is on the minds of the men in town too, but given that this is true most of the time, the thoughts the male residents of the town have about sex are less important in this story.)
The intimate lives of the women in town are heading for a shake-up, although in the opening pages of the book none of the female characters in The Uncoupling suspect what they are in for. It is only when the high school drama teacher selects the Greek play, Lysistrata, that a cold wind begins to blow into the bedrooms of every woman in the story.
In the play, the women of ancient Greece are sick of the decades-long war that has stolen their husbands away, some forever, and decide they only have one weapon left: sex. They will withhold sex from all men until the war is brought to an end. In The Uncoupling, it is as if the ideas from the play begin to cast a spell one woman after another, causing each to inexplicably and irrevocably refuse to have sex.
It becomes clear that each woman’s refusal of sex has a deeply different cause from that of her neighbors. For sixteen year-old Willa, it is as if she is suddenly doubting whether love is real and whether she has let sex have too much power of her relationship. For Ruth, a mother of two toddlers and a newborn, the respite from her husband’s lackluster nightly sex sessions allows her time to set some guidelines for self-care which include stopping sex until her husband makes it worth her while. For Leanne, pausing all three sexual relationships she is in forces her to take a hard look at whether causal sex is really all she wants as she approaches 30. For forty-year-old Dory, it is the first time is more than 20-years of marriage that sex has not been at the center of her marriage and her sudden refusal shines a light on what the rest of her relationship with her husband brings to her life. For Bev, whose recent weight gain has led to conflict in the bedroom, the refusal to have sex is a demand to her husband: love me as I am (not as I was) or get out.
Wolitzer tells her tale with laugh-out loud humor as well as deep insight into the social forces that influence who a woman sleeps with and why. The book sheds a light on the various paths to sexual fulfillment women follow and attempts to remove the shame women feel about their bodies and their sexual appetites. A wonderful book that I highly recommend, even if you have found Wolitzer’s other works to be difficult to read.