Not previously known for whimsy, Wolitzer (The Ten-Year Nap, 2008, etc.) uses a magical premise to launch her sharp-eyed assessment of sexual desire in its permutations across generations and genders.
A high-school production of Lysistrata casts a “spell” that causes every woman in the town of Stellar Plains, N.J., to lose interest in sex. That includes teenaged Willa Lang, who has barely had time to enjoy her first real romance, as well as her mother Dory, whose sudden indifference after years of enthusiastic marital intimacies pains and puzzles husband Robby. Dory and Robby are English teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, where new drama teacher Fran Heller is rehearsing Aristophanes’ centuries-old comedy about women withholding sex to stop war—which inspires the play’s star, Marissa Clayborn, to stage her own “sex strike” to call attention to the conflict in Afghanistan. The spell isn’t the best fit for a writer of Wolitzer’s comic gifts, and at first it seems like a long way to go to get to the novel’s best scene, in which five female teachers ruefully remember the thrill of youthful physical love and its slow devolution into routine or obligation. The wincing recognition prompted by their comments is matched by the author’s compassionate portraits of mostly decent, loving men unnerved by a sea change they can’t comprehend or cope with. Hardest hit is Fran’s son Eli, so distressed by Willa’s rejection that he heads for his father’s home in Michigan; Fran and husband Lowell decided long ago that the way to keep passion fresh was to live apart. The performance of Lysistrata, with Willa subbing for sex-striking Marissa, provokes a general healing that skirts perilously close to contrivance and sticky sentiment, but Wolitzer makes it work, thanks to sharp characterizations and acute observations on everything from the digital generation gap to the accommodations made in a long marriage.
A risky strategy pays off for a smart author whose work both amuses and hits home.