Certain books and TV shows would give you the impression that people talk about sex All. The. Time. My own experience hasn't reflected that; maybe it's because the people I spend time with are just more conservative and prefer to keep some personal subjects personal. Maybe it's because talking about it when it's good can sound like bragging and make other people uncomfortable, while talking about it when it's not good can make everyone even more uncomfortable. But I have to wonder if The Uncoupling would have been a different story if the characters in it had been willing to risk a little discomfort and talk to each other more.
Author Meg Wolitzer doesn't seem to be uncomfortable addressing the topic of sex in her fiction; her earlier novel The Position concerns a couple of married sex therapists and how their career affects their children. The Uncoupling, inspired by overheard conversations between women who were glad to be "done with all that" (OK, some people do talk about it), explores the sudden departure of sexual interest from the women of Stellar Plains, New Jersey, an occurrence coincidently timed with a high-school production of the classic Greek comedy Lysistrata. The play appeals to the school's new drama teacher because it offers plenty of roles for girls, and its subject - a "sex strike" by a group of women who want to see a war ended, and refuse to sleep with men until it happens - is both provocative and timely. However, no one expects - or even seems to realize - that the production will affect the community at large, as its women suddenly find themselves conducting a sex strike of their own. Unlike the one in the play, theirs isn't motivated by politics, or even a conscious choice - but as days go by, one women after another is stunned to find herself completely turned off to even the idea of sex. Desire has simply disappeared, seemingly forever. And if the women are stunned, you can imagine how the husbands and boyfriends must feel about this development...
Wolitzer depicts this loss of desire as a magic spell that overcomes the women of Stellar Plains, and that made me a bit nervous that the novel would enter Alice-Hoffman-style magical-realism territory, but it really doesn't; by the end, I felt that the spell was more metaphorical than literal. It's certainly a literary device, though, and it does what it needs to do: it creates a context for an examination of sexual dysfunction as it can occur in relationships at all stages, but with a particular focus on how the very nature of long-term relationships can change things in ways we may challenge, ignore, or deny (or all of the above). And it does, ultimately, get her characters talking about sex.
Speaking of characters, there are a large number to keep track of in the novel. Many are not as fully-developed as they could be, but considering that the author is primarily interested in depicting their sexual natures, Wolitzer manages to make each of them distinct and multi-faceted. The writing is assured and engaging, and makes for a relatively fast read. And while this is a novel in which sex figures heavily, I should note that there's really not much sex in the novel, at least as far as graphic depictions of particular activities are concerned; it's not an especially "sexy" book, and in that respect, I don't think it will take most readers too far from their comfort zone. Still, they say that the most important sex organ is the mind, and I do think that The Uncoupling engages that quite proficiently - it just may get you thinking, and talking, about sex. Its premise is just as timely and provocative as the classic play that inspires and propels it.