Only a novelist as skilled as Meg Wolitzer could pull off the preposterous conceit that animates her playful new novel: a “formidable wind” blows through a small New Jersey community, casting a spell that causes women, one by one, to lose desire for their partners. There’s more: this mysterious collective not-tonight-dear headache takes grip just as the local high school is preparing to stage a production of Lysistrata, the famed Greek comedy in which women organize a sex strike to stop a war.
In lesser hands, such an ambitious high-concept scenario could have descended into magic-realism preciosity. Yet the American writer deftly renders the twinned scenarios utterly plausible, even realistic, and uses them to explore big themes: the complexities of mid-life marriage, the waxing and waning of sexual desire, and ultimately how much we really know those to whom we’re closest.
Multiple interconnected relationships are tested and redefined by this mysterious spell—among them, once smugly married high school teachers Robby and Dory Lang, their teenage daughter, Willa, and her first love, Eli, and a philandering principal and his school-psychologist mistress. Along the way, Wolitzer, a reliably witty, trenchant social observer, takes on the politics of high school faculties, riffing on the burdens of social kissing, bringing hummus to a pot-luck dinner and weight gain and desire. But most of the book’s focus plays to her greatest strength: depicting the profundity of ordinary lives. Wolitzer’s usually gleaming prose is more gently burnished in this outing: a scene in which Robby Lang brings home an adult game, “The Game of Want,” in a desperate bid to reboot his wife’s libido, is both comic and poignant. The novel’s greatest triumph, however, lies in a resolution that sees its two themes converge, both literally and figuratively, to bring this fantastical tale back to reality. Just when the reader is questioning whether it’s even possible, Wolitzer makes it happen, like magic.