Book review: 'The Uncoupling'
Meg Wolitzer's new book, "The Uncoupling," asks an implicit but frank question: So, how long could you go without sex?

Once you're done coughing, tapping your fingers or otherwise avoiding the question, you might be surprised at your answer, if you're being honest with yourself. Or maybe you've already had to figure it out, if circumstances have been so unkind.

The premise of Wolitzer's lively novel, coming after successes with provocative books such as "Ten-Year Nap" and "The Wife," is inspired by "Lysistrata," the Aristophanes play where the women stop having sex with the men in order to bring end to a long war. In a ho-hum New Jersey suburb, high school drama teacher Fran Heller decides to stage the Greek classic, and soon enough, female students and teachers are afflicted with what English teacher Dory Lang describes as "a mild horror at being touched." It's not a war of the roses as much as it is a war of attrition, of turned shoulders and unfulfilled sighs.

The teenagers handle it by simply breaking up but the majority of the adults have to suffer what they assume to be the first thud of mortality — the loss of interest in sex.

It visits as a cold wind (thankfully, nobody ever talks about being "frigid," since these aren't white-lipped Wasps in the '50s), summoning in Dory, for instance, a body shake, a "brief death rattle, a death-of-sex rattle," that promptly chills relations between herself and her husband Robby, the kind of affable guy who was wearing nerdy eyeglasses before they were cool. Robby, also a fortysomething English teacher at the high school, at first rolls with the punches, or simply rolls over, but eventually he vacillates between irritation and desperation, which Wolitzer handles with a deft, if predictable, comedic touch.

Meanwhile, their daughter Willa, who gets hit by the freeze later in the book than her mother, is enjoying the first blushes of physical infatuation. Wolitzer nicely captures the range of sex in the family, from the mind-scrambling novelty of virginity lost to the nourishing pattern that the Langs have settled into, with Dory in her "old, thin, stretchy, skim-milk-colored nightgown," not exactly copy ripped from the Frederick's of Hollywood catalog.

"The Uncoupling" not only asks how long but it also wonders, at what price? And what exactly is this thing that gets sacrificed anyway? Is it true desire? Or is sex a stand-in for something else?

On a hunt for answers, Wolitzer moves her camera lens around the town, busting into households at their most private of moments, whether with Ruth the gym teacher, who can hardly hit the loo without the children gathering around, or guidance counselor Bev, whose image in the mirror of her overweight figure only affirms her husband's blunt assessments.

At times, it might seem that Wolitzer's probings are cursory or a mere catalog of the various ways that the absence of eros can bring other problems to the fore or act as catalyst. But the author's prodding is the very thing that saves her — Wolitzer might be pushy but she's doing it with such humanity that you can almost imagine these characters agreeing to fling open their doors to her in their most vulnerable moments.

But for all the curiosity on display, "The Uncoupling" only goes so far. Those looking for Kinsey-style range should peek elsewhere. The novel mines the nature of sex from a particularly female, heterosexual point of view, one that's safe enough to bring home to Mom, and it doesn't pretend to be interested in anything else.

As painted by the author, sex is as familiar and sustaining a ritual as the family meal or a hot bath. Sometimes it can climb the heights of rapture but that's mostly reserved for the high-school kids, lucky them. For the married characters, desire is based in deep emotional connection and not pornography's surface throes.

Speaking of pornography, does Wolitzer deliver her own polite version, suitable for the Barnes & Noble display table? Not exactly. Foreplay is delivered in keenly observant prose but it always stops shy of the actual deed. Georges Bataille it is not, which is fine, but Wolitzer could've pushed herself a bit further in other ways.

Many of the conclusions the characters come to regarding sex, desire and passion crest for a moment — one teenager decides she simply won't have sex again until she really wants to — and then simply fade into the background of their lives. But a moment longer of staring into the sun of this mighty topic could've done this clever novel good. What's the point of sex if you don't have the long, thoughtful cigarette afterward?

margaret.wappler@latimes.com