By Ira Levin
There’s already been two movies based on this novel by Ira Levin, who also wrote Rosemary’s Baby. Published in 1972, Levin captured the zeitgeist of his time with this dark, satirical thriller. It’s been nine years since Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out and sparked a new wave of feminism in America. In 1969, Friedan helped organize the nation-wide Women's Strike for Equality and then in 1971, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus.
So it’s not surprising that Levin references Friedan a few times in his novel. The Stepford Wives is also a horror story about the extent of what certain men are willing to do to prevent women from taking away what they feel is theirs by right. Although there is no outright hatred toward women expressed by any of the male characters á la Stieg Larsson, the undercurrent of creepy misogyny is definitely felt throughout the book.
When Manhattan couple Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children move into the quiet suburban community of Stepford, Connecticut, it seems they have timewarped back at least a decade. Walter and the kids seem to be happily adjusting to their new home, but for Joanna, there’s something about the Stepford community that isn’t quite right.
Hmm, could it be that the only thriving club in town is the men-only Men’s Association? How archaic is that? And why are all the housewives in the neighbourhood obsessive-compulsive housecleaners? And despite scrubbing floors well into the night how do they manage to look so perfectly coiffed and maintain their knockout figures? But what really makes Joanna suspicious is that none of the Stepford hausfraus are the least bit interested in forming a women’s club with her!
The Stepford Wives, in this day and age, does come across as a little simplistic and naïve. But I think the novel was quite successful when it came out, mostly because it hit the right note at the right time. The novel’s title even entered into the modern American lexicon where a Stepford wife is used to describe:
1.) a servile, compliant, submissive, spineless wife who happily does her husband's bidding and serves his every whim dutifully.
2.) a wife who is cookie-cutter & bland in appearance and behavior, like an attractive robotic doll devoid of emotion or thought.
Hmm, with the cultural phenomena of Japanese men vacationing with and even marrying their $16,000 silicone sex dolls, perhaps Levin’s novel is not so archaic after all! In any case, it was an enjoyable story with a nice pace, tight structure, good characterization and a nicely ambiguous ending. Perfect for a movie adaptation - I may even check out the 1974 version some day (not so sure about the newer one).
P.S. this 1973 Fawcett paperback edition was acquired at a neighbour's garage sale for a whopping 25 cents.