Anyone who does not already know the story of The Stepford Wives should skip the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk that opens this edition and read it at the end. It is a thought-provoking opinion piece but gives away key elements of the plot. I picked up my copy of the tale having seen the film (the 1975 version) so was familiar with what would unfold. As is often the case, the book offers a much more powerful depiction than that shown on screen.
Given the way many men, and also certain women, are currently regarding today’s young women, this is a story that deserves to, once again, be widely read. Have we gone backwards from 1972 when the book was first published? Palahnick writes in this 2011 edition:
“In The Nannie Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada and Confessions of a Shopaholic, in this new generation of ‘chick lit’ novels, men are once more the goal. It’s successful women who torment our pretty, painted narrators […] women may now choose to be pretty, stylishly dressed, and vapid. This is no longer the shrill, politically charged climate of 1972; if it’s a choice freely made, then it’s . . . okay.”
“It’s fine. This is what the modern politically aware, fully awake, enlightened, assertive woman really, really, really wants: a manicure.”
The story opens with Joanna and Walter Eberhart, parents of Pete and Kim, settling into their new suburban home in Stepford having left the dirty and dangerous New York City. Joanna, a freelance photographer, is telling The Welcome Wagon Lady about her interests for the ‘Notes on Newcomers’ section of the local paper. Her female neighbours seem more interested in maintaining their already immaculate homes than in socialising. She hopes the article will help her find more forward thinking, like-minded friends. Walter plans to establish himself within the community by joining the local Men’s Association. Joanna is appalled that her supposedly liberated husband will consider attending a club that bans women.
Through the article in the newspaper Joanna meets Bobbie and then Charmaine. The three women get together and collectively wonder at the many beautiful and carefully presented wives in Stepford whose key interest seems to be housework. Their invitations to set up some sort of club for women have been declined with claims that there is no time for such pursuits if homes are to be maintained. And then the vocal and energetic Charmaine changes.
The gradual shift from suburban bliss to the horror of the situation is masterfully achieved. Even knowing the denouement I had to set down the book to catch my breath before finishing. The lengths the men of Stepford will go to in order to ensure their wives take more care over their appearance and become quiet and subservient may appear extreme. Swap their direct action for relentless and widespread emotional coercion and it is all too believable today.
This is a short book that packs a mighty punch with its succinct and fluid structure and language. I am left pondering just how many men would secretly prefer a Stepford Wife to a partner who is, at least, their equal.
The Stepford Wives is published by Corsair.