Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Review: The Stepford Wives

I know many of you have heard the term Stepford Wife. It's a part of the lexicon, at least the American Lexicon, and for good reason. The original movie was creepy (the remake was a mess, which is too bad, since they could have done some fun things with it). The novella it was based on was terrifying and wrenching.

Okay, the review is filled to the brim with spoilers for the book (and the film) so if you haven't read the book and/or seen the film, don't read this review (which mainly focuses on the book).

 The Stepford Wives is a beautifully written, nasty little piece of work, and I mean that as the highest compliment. It's a novella--I read it in a few hours--and it delivers a gut punch the 1975 movie really doesn't. The film was creepy and kind of scary--a thriller in broad daylight--but the book made the movie look like a Saturday-morning cartoon.

Ira Levin captured several things: the sterility and conformity of the very affluent suburbs, the feeling of isolation in such a community, the misogyny and ultimate gutlessness of a certain type of man (not the type you'd necessarily think), betrayal, denial, and the logical conclusion of the cult of domesticity. There is a reason why some have called this book satire, and I have to agree with it. It's not very funny--once you know the ending you can see a mirthless humor in it, sure, but it's not an overt pack of laughs. But it's a satire, a devastating and creepy one.

First, a few things out of the way. Unlike the movie, in the book there is no consciousness raising group that derails into conversations about Easy On Spray Starch (though it's epic in the movie). There is no Bobbie bot malfunctioning (though the movie scene above it's both funny and hair raising). There is no Joanna bot that kills the real Joanna. And Walter comes across at first as an enlightened ally, not a whiny, entitled chump like the Walter in the movie.  He's also more sinister in the book--he's not remorseful even for a minute about what will happen to his wife (unlike the movie, where when he realizes what will happen to her he gets drunk and tearfully tells Joanna he appreciates her).

So--the story is basically this (I told you there would be spoilers): Walter and Joanna Eberhart move themselves and their son and daughter to Stepford, Connecticut from the city. Walter really wanted to move, and Joanna figured why not--it would make him happy and it would be a nice place to live. She loves and trusts him. They split the chores cheerfully, he comes across as respectful and nice, and they appear to have an easy, very happy relationship. The only fly in the ointment is that the women in the town are not interested in meeting Joanna for so much as a cup of coffee--they are too busy doing housework. Your husband is out that night? Time to wax the floor! It's a beautiful afternoon and the kids are outside playing and your husband is at work? Move the furniture and vacuum!  Disinfect the kids toys! Dust, and when you're done dust everything again.  No time for coffee, Joanna--those books aren't going to dust themselves.  It's been a whole day since I've dusted them.  Even the way they fill their grocery carts is creepy--they place each item in neatly and fit them together almost like a jigsaw. She's lonely and isolated until she befriends two women--Bobbie Markowe and Charmaine Wimperis. And then they inexplicably change and become like the women in the town--and by the end of the book, you see it has happened to Joanna as well.

For such a short book, it's meaty. When you are only focused on the home (and you're a robot), you aren't going to be social. Those days of mothers helping each other out and visiting would not exist in this sterile and airless utopia. Things are done perfectly and serenely by busty women who oddly look better (younger?) than they did six years before.  There is no community to speak of.  Stepford isn't really a homemaker's paradise because a homemaker would want to see other homemakers. A homemaker would want to talk to their neighbor over the picket fence and get the recipe for that casserole their neighbor made the other night and find out where the best place to go grocery shopping was and what people do when they have problems with garden pests. And frankly, they'd want human contact. They'd want to just talk about stuff and laugh and complain and cry and drink coffee or tea while commiserating with each other about their kids or their husbands or the PTA or whatever.

Joanna is a freelance photographer--unlike the movie, she does fairly well with it, has an agent, and has made some money from it. Unlike the movie, her husband doesn't complain about her working in the darkroom or look annoyed when she takes photographs. But you realize by the end of the book that he resented it by what (we assume is) the Joanna bot says about her abilities. The men are passive--they won't bother saying anything to their wives.  You're not sure if it's because they are weak, or they just really figure they'll have a "better" version soon.  The books says a lot of about the disposability of people (especially women) and how  easy it is to think that someone you never quite saw as fully human could be replaced with a machine.  How killing these people you deep down don't like and don't really see as human doesn't "count."

Unlike their "wives," the men are plenty social--they spend every night at the Men's Association, away from their hot, serene, devoted "wives." Because here's the thing: the men don't seem to really like women, not even robots shaped like women. They kill their wives and replace them with "better" versions but still don't have anything to do with them. They'd rather hang out with their dudebros, but you had to have a wife.  Everyone has one.  Someone had to keep the house clean and take care of the kids, and it's so easy a robot could do it, right?? (Ha, not in real life, no.)

As the book progressed, I felt relieved for Joanna when she made friends, then apprehensive as these same friends disappeared into the world of domesticity.

One by one, Joanna's friends disappear. And they seem to repeat the same lines--"I've decided to my job as conscientiously as Dave does his," says Bobbie. "Ed's a great guy and I haven't appreciated all the things he does for me," says Charmaine after a weekend away from her husband. They repeat these things like a loop--you suspect it's what their husbands wanted them to say when their wives were alive. Joanna makes a new friend--Ruthanne Hendry, an African-American children's book author. But at that point you know the game is up. Everyone seems to change in this town and it's only a matter of time before it gets to Joanna (and then to Ruthanne).

Joanna is alone and it's heartbreaking to read. Bobbie, who was portrayed as a complete slob, suddenly became a well-groomed, well-dressed neat freak after a weekend away with her husband. And that would have been fine--honestly, her husband would have had a point in saying "Bobbie, I'm willing to do my share to clean but I can't do it all--meet me halfway here, willya?" I guess he thought it was easier to kill his wife and built a bot to replace her. (Wouldn't it be easier on your back to hash things out in counselling rather than dig a grave? I'm just saying.)  The thing is is that not only were Bobbie's slovenly ways gone, her personality had disappeared as well.  She was placid and boring and had no quips, no insights, nothing.  There was nothing to her anymore.  When Bobbie changed, it was horrible. Not because she was keeping a clean house or grooming herself. But because she disappeared into the home and domesticity and turned her back on everything else. It was jarring to see a funny, lively woman sound slow and somewhat disconnected from everything. It was heartbreaking to see that Joanna was truly alone, and I found myself grieving for the friend who seemingly disappeared. There was no one for her to turn to.

The book implies (you never actually read about it) is that it's Bobbie/the Bobbie bot who kills Joanna (the men are either too passive or gutless to do it themselves; either that or they relegated killing to women's work). She holds up a huge knife and says she'll cut herself to show that she bleeds and isn't a robot, and Joanna thinks for a minute that the loud rock music upstairs is playing to cover her screams when Bobbie kills her. Then, denial: No! It couldn't be! Bobbie is my friend. I'm distraught, I need help, I'll continue therapy and Walter and I will work things out and I'll learn to be happy. And then you see her next as Ruthanne says hello to her in the supermarket. And Joanna's very languid and serene and places her items into the cart very neatly so that they almost fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. She's fully made up and seems a bit bustier than before.  She parrots her loop phrases--she's focusing on her family now and everyone is so much happier. She hasn't the time for photography, which she was never very good at anyway (I really hated Walter then--he's the second fictional character I actually wanted to punch). She had let herself go but now she was taking care of herself. Etc. Ruthanne, being wrapped up in writing her book, hasn't had a chance to really keep up with Joanna and so doesn't notice the change consciously--but it nags at her. But the way the book ends, you know she won't get it in time and she'll be killed and replaced like the rest. Or that she'll at least change.

 You could convince yourself that it's just the women finally conforming to the town, and a good argument could be made for that. Levin leaves it open to interpretation, but he does stack the deck in favor of the robot theory. They change after a romantic weekend with their husbands (when Bobby and her husband come to pick up the kids from the Eberharts' house, Walter is hesitant to give her a good-bye kiss on the cheek.) The change happens after they've been there for four months. Once they change, they talk more slowly, move more slowly, dress and groom themselves differently, and fill their shopping carts oh-so-neatly. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. It's creepy. The book seems to be saying that the logical outcome of an extreme vision of 1950's domesticity--woman always at home, cooking and cleaning, the man out and about--is a lifeless, loveless, joyless existence. That it's not harmonious, it's deadly dull and quiet as a tomb.  That it's unsocial and sterile.  And that when you expect that level of conformity, people are dehumanized and easily replaced.

It's a gripping, quick read. I highly recommend it.



  1. The movie gave me the creeps. It seems for a few years while I was terribly busy being the perfect wife that I did not have time to read the book.

    1. The movie was definitely creepy, though funny in parts I thought. Definitely check out the book if you can, PP, it's very good.

  2. That sounds really great! I've not read the book before but of course it's so entrenched in modern culture that you know vaguely what it's about. I shall have to pick up a cheap copy somewhere!

  3. As a novice writer I wanted to read the book to learn how something so short could be made into a feature length film. Your review was the perfect synopsis of what I was looking for in the way of a perfect summary. This is the style of writing I want to emulate.