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5th January
written by Steph
So, first question: how can a book about SEX be so, well, boring? I mean, the word “sex” alone is so incendiary, that not only am I sure that seeing it boldly placed there in that first sentence immediately grabbed your attention, but I can also only imagine the deluge of weirdo spam this post is going to incur. So you’d think that a book that essentially revolves entirely around sex (even when people aren’t having sex, it’s still all about sex) would be cause sweaty palms and racing pules, or at the very least an occasional cocked eyebrow and maybe a knowing smirk, right? And yet, no! In spite of a rather inspired premise, this book can best be described as “MEHsmerizing”, that is a book the inspires intense feelings of apathy and disinterest in its reader despite ostensibly scintillating subject matter. [And yes, I just coined that term, but I think it’s going to take off in a big way…] And just what is this neat-o premise of which I speak? Essentially, it is this: an enigmatic drama teacher moves to a small suburban town and decides that the local high school will put on a production of the classic Greek comedy Lysistrata – a play in which all the women of Greece decide to abstain from sex until their men agree to end the Peloponnesian War. In an uncanny twist of events, as production on the play advances the women of the town are slowly overtaken by an enchantment that also causes them to spurn the advances of their husbands, lovers, and boyfriends. As sex lives become a thing of the past, tensions rise and soon the whole town is thrown into upheaval. It’s only a matter of time before someone reaches their breaking point, and when they do, things are going to get ugly… See? Doesn’t that sound like it could be fun and cheeky? So it was even more disappointing when it turned out to be lackluster and unfocused. I think that part of the problem was that rather than concentrating on Robby and Dory and their daughter (ostensibly the main characters of the novel) and fleshing out the ways the sex drought affects them, Wolitzer chose to dance about with a variety of women within the town. I get that this allows her to broaden the scope of her story and show the many ways a marriage or relationship can go off the rails, both when it is well-established versus just starting out, as well as with the young versus the old, and also present a wide variety of viewpoints on issues like sex and monogamy. Still, I don’t think this tactic was in Wolitzer’s best interest because in the end, rather than feeling like a novel, it felt like a series of vignettes that were about as indepth as a five-minute telemarketing survey and all the characters wound up feeling superficial. They all had marked differences and I could see what Wolitzer was trying to show by including the various women (three adults (not including the drama teacher): one who had a solid/perfect marriage, one who has many lovers and doesn’t really get monogamy, one who is bisexual but is now married and has young children to juggle; two teenagers: one who is just discovering the first bloom of young love, one who has always been sexually precocious) and yet understanding her intention didn’t help me enjoy the portrayals any more. Above and beyond the characters, I also struggled with whether the book was meant to be read on anything other than a plot level. I couldn’t really get a grip on what it was trying to say that didn’t seem trite and obvious. Was the moral really that it is easy to get into a rut and that relationships ultimately head down the road to companionship rather than fierce passion? Anyone who has taken a social psychology class knows as much, but then perhaps I overestimate the number of people who do so. But also, it seemed like Wolitzer was suggesting that the cure to keeping your marriage happy and healthy was to live like Fran, the drama teacher, who actually has chosen to live apart from her husband because then that way your relationship doesn’t get bogged down in the mire of daily banalities and you must instead cherish every moment you’re together because it’s not part of your real life. I am really hoping I had a secret seizure where something counteracting this life lesson happened, because that type of marriage sounds seriously terrible to me and I have to think there are better ways to keep marital flames alive. Still, I wasn’t really able to glean much more from the book than that bottom line, so it really felt like there was no intelligent way to read this book deeply, and so you were left with the plot, which just kind of dragged on and after a while held few surprises, and so the reading experience overall was just not very rich or fun. Also, I have to say that the ending of the book was really disappointing to me, and while I never found this book good enough to really ruin, the ending made it all worse. I am an unabashed lover of magical realism so I have a high tolerance for weird stuff inexplicably occurring in novels, so perhaps that is why the way that Wolitzer chose to resolve the spell felt both unnecessary and unsatisfying to me. Having Fran act as the fairy godmother of sorts who shakes things up only so that people can appreciate what they’ve got in the end and see their lives through fresh eyes really bugged me and like really clunky, lame storytelling. Honestly, I only finished this book because it was quick and easy and my brain was tired and I was being lazy and didn’t have to work very hard to read it. I can’t say I liked it very much or found it enjoyable since a large portion of the book focused on people’s marriages curdling. BUT for your amusement, I have decided to share a few weird moments that bothered me or seemed so absurd that I wouldn’t want you to miss them, but at the same time, you should also not waste your time reading such a dull book. First, there were some moments of horrific, awkward writing. For example, when Fran first moves to town, Dory discovers that Fran has moved on to her very own street.  This is how Wolitzer describes that moment:
“Dory immediately knew which house it was: the one that had had the FOR SALE sign up for a long time, then the SOLD sign.”
This sentence made me insane, because it is a waste of words and my time. As if we readers could not have divined that the house someone moved into once had a “for sale” sign in front of it that then switched to “sold” after it was, well, sold. Gah! So dumb! As if it matters or adds anything! I also took issue with some of the ways Wolitzer seemed to treat female sexuality. For instance, this sentence really rubbed me the wrong way:
“She described the way celibacy had become a refuge, a revenge, an obscure, perhaps female, necessity.”
I don’t really want to go into great length about this, but I find the idea that females may have this innate affinity for celibacy to be really repugnant. Obviously people can and do use sex to their advantage, but I just really feel like this sentence suggests that women don’t naturally want/crave/need/like sex and that the best way we can manipulate and control men is by withholding sex from them (see: the reference to celibacy = revenge). I mean, far be it that a woman actually enjoy the act of sex and find fulfillment, satisfaction, and pleasure from it. No, no, clearly it’s just a chore if you have a vagina. Barf. Lest you think I am all negativity and outrage, a few things did cause me to smile, though not a knowing one, just a humor-related one. The first was intentional, and occurred when Robby & Dory are attempting to rekindle their carnal passions by using a cardgame that has instructions for sexy things to do. Here’s what ensued:
 “Two people. One can of chocolate frosting. One birthday candle. The possibilities are infinite. Discover them all.” “But you just said they were infinite!” cired Robby. “How can we discover them all?” “Jerks!” said Dory.
The other moment that made me laugh, was due to utter bewilderment and occurred after the spell had lifted. To celebrate, this is what people did:
“Wine bottles were opened, buckets of spicy chicken wings were eaten, candles were lit, and meaningful music was played.”
The emphasis is mine, but seriously, if posed with the opportunity to have sex after months of going without, would you really dive into a food that is likely to upset your stomach and make you all gassy? And who eats chicken wings with wine anyway? I seriously underlined that passage in my book and wrote “not a good idea” next to it. I guess if you and your spouse do this kind of thing often, then maybe separate residences is a good idea. All in all, this one’s a dud. At least it had a cute cover. When it’s released in paperback, let’s re-title it The Underwhelming. Rating: 2 out of 5


  1. I listened to this on audio this summer and had the same exact reaction. So meh. Plus, I thought it was incredibly wordy, and the narrator had this sort of prim, middle-aged tone to it that just added to the boring-ness. So yeah. Not my favorite. I never even got enough ire to review it.

  2. 01/05/2012

    It sounds unusual though!

  3. 01/05/2012

    I’m glad I saw your review before I got the book. I thought the premise looked interesting and I really, really like the cover. But this sounds like something I’d actually hate and not just be MEHsmerized.

  4. 01/05/2012

    You’ve convinced me that I don’t need to read this one. I thought the premise seemed so promising but it sounds like a real dud!

  5. 01/05/2012

    Meg Wolitzer fascinates me and I keep thinking I should try to read her books, but every time I’ve tried, I’ve just gotten too bored to keep up with them…

  6. 01/10/2012

    @ jenn: I don’t really do audiobooks, but I doubt this one would have held my attention if I had. It sounds like the prim narrator actually fits this one quite well, though! 😉
    & nbsp;
    @ Mystica: It is a really cool concept… shame about the execution.
    @ brooks: Oh, the cover is so cool! Definitely my favorite part of the book!
    @ Kathleen: This was just a waste of time, and I really can’t recommend that anyone spend time on it when there are so many more enjoyable and insightful books out there.
    @ Amanda: I didn’t really have any thoughts about Wolitzer going into this one as I’d never read anything by her, but I have some friends who really like her and have raved about her other stuff. I have to hope this was a dud, though it doesn’t really make me want to read anything else by her.
    @ zibilee: I will say that at the very least Wolitzer does show that when sex stops, both men and women ultimately suffer because of the void that opens up in relationships, but there was this weird tone where the women were liberated by removing sex from the equation and this message that sex can be used as a weapon. Maybe I misread, but that’s the vibe that I kept getting (especially with the weirdo drama teacher marriage where they live separately but happily) and it annoyed me. Others who have read it don’t seem to be contradicting me, so maybe I didn’t misread!

  7. 01/06/2012

    I have this book, and had been eying it from the shelves for the last couple of weeks, but it sounds like it’s better left neglected. I have to smirk at some of your observations and commentary, but the fact that Wolitzer seems to presume that sex is something that females don’t need and can withhold for revenge or manipulation really irks the hell out of me. It sounds like something from the 50’s, and reminds me of the old nugget about lying back and thinking of England. I don’t think I would like this book at all, and am not even going to bother cracking it open. It can go ahead and sit there on my shelf and make sad eyes at me. And while I agree that I also have a huge tolerance for magical realism, I don’t think that this book sounds like it utilizes it well at all. Very awesome and fun review today, Steph. I really enjoyed it!

  8. 01/06/2012

    Ha! “MEHsmerizing.” I love that. I’m trying to remember if I’ve read any of Wolitzer’s novels. I don’t think so, and from the sound of your review I won’t be starting with this one. Given your description it sounds to me like somebody had parts of a novel and a deadline.

  9. 01/06/2012

    I might have liked this a teensy bit better than you did, but only by a whisker. I definitely agree that the insights–and the jokes–were pretty obvious (and sometimes flawed, as you say). It was a quick read and wasn’t actively annoying, so I finished it and didn’t resent it. So that’s something, but not much 🙂

  10. Oh dear! I had wanted to read this but no longer. The quotes you shared were so ridiculous that even if your opinion hadn’t turned me off, Wolitzer’s own words surely would.

  11. Lu

    Everything about this book frustrated me, but it was one I wanted to talk about. I almost wish I had read it with a book club or something. I went back to look at my review and I am not sure I got the book at all, though I did say I enjoyed reading it. But looking back now, I’m not sure why. I don’t recall much about it, except annoyance. So, I guess it didn’t hold up at all.

  12. 01/10/2012

    @ Priscilla: Like I said to Amanda, I have heard raves from friends about The Ten-Year Nap, so I do think Wolitzer is capable of writing a good novel, I just don’t think this is her at her best.
    @ Teresa: Although my review wound up being pretty negative and I was irked while I read it, I didn’t actively loathe this book, because otherwise I probably would have stopped reading it. I just found it lackluster and kind of obtuse, but it was a quick enough read that I was able to push through it pretty quickly.
    @ Claire: I was actually shocked at how poor I found some of the writing. I really expected more from Wolitzer, so the clunkiness of some of the phrases was an unhappy surprise.
    @ Lu: I think this could make for a spirited book club discussion, though I still wish there were more meat there. I’m thinking a lot of people who pick this one up will be able to read through to the end because it’s really not all that difficult a read, but I’m not sure it will capture very many people’s spirits or minds.
    @ softdrink: Well, from the outset it does sound like something that would give a book club tons to discuss because the premise does sound cool. It’s that the execution was so poorly bungled you’d really be better off just presenting the premise of the book as a topic of discussion rather than reading the book (which I don’t think adds anything or sheds any interesting light).
    @ Alex: I promise not to cry copyright infringement if you use it! 😉 Also, yes, I think your idea of the men spurning sex would be a LOT more interesting in the end!
    @ Jackie: So far I’ve mostly received spam regarding Ugg boots, so I think I am safe! 😉

  13. 01/08/2012

    I was going to say what Lu said. I thought it would be a good book club book, but now I don’t know why. And the end pissed me off. In retrospect, MEHsmerizing is a great word to sum it all up!

  14. “MEHsmerizing” – lol! I have to steal this one at some point, but promise to give credit!

    I’m now more curious to read the Greek original than this one. (Also, wouldn’t it be so much cooler to write about what would happen if men spurn sex?)

  15. LOL! I love your first paragraph. I’ve just posted about sex and was worried about all the unwanted traffic I might get too. Sorry to hear this was so dull. I haven’t tried it and don’t think I will now.

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