Novel explores notions of desire

Meg Wolitzer
Best-selling author Meg Wolitzer says she began thinking about writing "The Uncoupling" when she heard female friends announce they were done with intimacy.
MPR phpto/Euan Kerr

For her new novel "The Uncoupling," best-selling author Meg Wolitzer wanted to examine some old notions in a new way. The book tells the story of a 21st century community where all the women fall under a spell.

"Often in a novel, a character is explored through sex," Wolitzer said. "But here it's explored through the taking away of sex."

The story allowed Wolitzer to explore modern ideas about intimacy.

"The novel is about a spell that falls over the women and girls of a suburban town, causing them to turn away sexually from the men and boys in their lives," she said during a recent visit to the Twin Cities. "And all of this is happening during a high school production of 'Lysistrata,' the famous play in which the women go on a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian war. But, for me, what I was interested in was not writing an antiwar novel, but I wanted to track the idea of female desire over time. What happens to it?"

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The spell takes the form of a cold wind, literally blowing into the beds of women around town.

"I had a little fun with that," she said. "I figured that if Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison can write magic realism, why can't someone at a much lower level like myself do my suburban version?"

"So this book is about spells and the end of love sometimes, but also why books matter."

The spell sets off a wave of confusion and angst in the community that manifests itself in many ways. Wolitzer said, in every case, lives have irreversibly been changed.

When she heard a female friend talking about being done with intimacy, Wolitzer began began to ponder what it meant. In the sexualized context of modern society, some people might see this as an indication of illness. But she wanted to explore how individuals might feel and the implications of their decisions.

"I really kind of wanted to write about where we are now, and what it means for women -- sometimes in long marriages or just beginning their sexual lives, you know, teenage girls in the hook-up culture. Why would they feel suddenly ambivalence about sex? Why would they do that? And, as a novelist, I just pose a question and then do my best to figure it out."

She began thinking more and more about spells, and how so many things can be seen as such: falling in love, falling out of love, And then there's the Internet.

"This is the strangest thing: I go to my computer checking for email, and when I see something has come in, be still my heart! Like I am a little excited. What do I think it is?

"And the women in this book -- and the men, too -- everyone is drawn to the erotic light of their computers. And that allowed me to have a chance to write really about the changes in intimacy and privacy."

Wolitzer and her friends of the generation who wrote long languorous love letters disparaged young people conducting their love lives over a cell phone. Then she got to thinking about it.

"Maybe it really is that intimacy isn't changing but that it's taking a different form, and I wanted to be open to looking at that in this novel. When people must be in touch on texts, is it not because in some way they have a need to be together?"

Yet, even as she considered the joys of texting, she wondered at the power of the book and the play, "Lysistrata," which is still going strong centuries after Aristophanes wrote it.

"So this book is about spells and the end of love sometimes, but also why books matter."

And maybe song too. This story has a post-publication twist. Wolitzer is good friends with singer Suzzy Roche, who liked the novel so much she set the plot to music.

Meg Wolitzer joked it's just a matter of time before all novelists will be wanting songs of their books.