Saturday 12 October 2013

REVIEW: The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin (3.5*)

(Corsair, 2011)

"That's what she was, Joanna felt suddenly.  That's what they all were, all the Stepford wives: actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants.  Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real."

Okay, so I mentioned before I went on holiday that I was still owing a review of The Stepford Wives.  I had a template all ready to go, and had even picked the quote I was planning to use to head up my post... and then Laura reviewed it while I was away.  Not only did she say ALL THE THINGS, but she also picked THE SAME QUOTE (which, let's be honest, is a superb summary of the book's major theme) and now I'm not ENTIRELY sure why I'm not just standing here with a neon arrow stuck on a hat wafting all of you over there to read her post instead.  BUT NO.  I SHALL TRY TO SAY A FEW THINGS.  EVEN IF THEY ARE THE SAME. 

I wasn't THAT impressed by the book, I have to say.  I mean, I enjoyed it and all, but I imagine I'd have enjoyed it a lot more if I didn't already know the plot and the twist and everything else that makes it so interesting.  And unlike Psychowhich I reviewed last month, I really DID know the plot, because I already shamelessly adore the Nicole Kidman movie.  Of course, the movie is very different - the ending has been changed, the oddness of the women is far more evident, it's funnier, and the whole thing has been brought right up to date - but the basic plot and characters are still the same...

Sooooo, it's about a fiercely independent feminist and photographer called Joanna Eberhart, who moves to idyllic Stepford with her husband Walter and their two children.  Unfortunately for Joanna, most of the beautiful local women seem to be interested in nothing but waxing their floors and cleaning their windows, while their husbands spend their evenings up at the imposing Men's Association.  It's quite a relief when she meets earthy, wisecracking fellow newbie Bobbie.  As the pair try to stir some kind of interest in women's affairs amongst their bland neighbours, and Joanna delves deeper into the town's past, they begin to suspect that there's something very wrong with the Stepford wives... 

The novel definitely raises big questions about feminism, male backlash, the role of a wife and mother and even pokes itself into the issue of scientific ethics - but it didn't really feel as powerful as I expected.  It didn't help that it was so short - flattening the characters somewhat - and that I was actually quite irritated by Joanna a fair amount of the time.  What WAS a delight was finding that Bobbie was just as smirk-inducingly funny in the book as in the new movie, even if her sharp wit is slightly less rude in the original!  I'm glad I finally read it, just because it's another one of those books that has ingratiated itself into popular culture and vocabulary so completely, but I don't think I'd read it again.  I want to watch the movie again now though, and the original film too!

Bonus points:  for the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk, in which he points out that while feminism was at its height in the 70s when this book was written, these days voluntary Stepford Wives are everywhere - painted and crimped on magazine pages, exulting their inner domestic goddess on cookery programmes, and harbouring ambitions to marry a rich footballer.  These days women are more likely to read about how to please men and dress well in Cosmo than they are to read news and politics.  He discusses the way older women are now more of a threat to young women than men, citing The Devil Wears Prada and the remake of The Stepford Wives as examples in popular culture.  His conclusion probably said more to me as a modern woman than the rest of the book:
"Now everyplace is Stepford, but it's okay.  It's fine.  This is what the modern politically aware, fully awake, enlightened, assertive woman really, really, really wants: a manicure.  We can't say Ira Levin didn't warn us."

Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK, nearly a year ago.  That's actually not bad time-wise, for me!