Book Review – The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

First published, 1972

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Strange to tell, for a movie maniac, I’ve never seen the films (the 1975 version had, so I’m told, a horror slant and starred Katharine Ross who was awesome in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the 2004 film starred Nicole Kidman and it played more as a comedy, or something headed in that direction).

As previously reported, I’m a child of the eighties and so I know a lot of this and other stories from comedy references in film and television, and from my mother’s friend, Julia.

When we first moved to Devon, Julia came and visited. For a self-described ‘Woodland Village’, Julia found the place to be very clean and overly manicured; a little too hygienic to be the true countryside, as if the leaves wouldn’t dare fall from the trees for fear of cluttering up lawns that were used for putting practice.

She communicated all of this with her eyes. What she actually said was, “It’s a bit like one of those little places in America.” She didn’t pronounce the word ‘Stepford’ (and I should point out that the people weren’t like those you find in the book. At all). But there was something about the village that made it a little too corseted to be real. At least, that seemed to be Julia’s impression, and it made a lot of sense to teenage-me.

So, The Stepford Wives. We know the story. Young family, full of dreams for the future, for women’s liberation, and equality for all, moves to neater than neat little town. Well-meaning husband and women’s ally, Walter, joins the local men’s association, planning to change it from the inside, while wife, Joanna looks to meet new friends to join the cause.

But very few of the women are like her, with interests outside the home. Indeed, very few seem to have interests outside the 1950s. Most of them are cookie-cutter, big-busted, small-bottomed, perfectly perfumed little robots who devote huge chunks of their lives to waxing their floors.

As, one by one, the few kooky and interesting friends Joanna has made morph into these unblinking homemakers, Joanna wonders how long it will be before she loses herself and becomes one of them. But Walter would never let that happen. He loves her for herself, for her beliefs and her opinions. Doesn’t he?

A quick read, the story was mesmeric and the characters beautifully drawn. A fascinating concept. And the idea that a person can only prove she’s real by bleeding hit something deep and profound within me, which I suspect will continue thrumming for some time. The introduction by Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) was unnecessary for this reader but the novel itself was a wonder.

“Joanna watched her close the dryer and take something white from the pile of clothes on it. She shook it out – a T-shirt. Joanna said, ‘What’s wrong with Bill McCormick? Can’t he run a washer? I thought he was one of our aerospace brains.’
“‘He’s taking care of Marge,’ Kit said, folding the T-shirt. ‘These things came out nice and white, didn’t they?’ She put the folded T-shirt into the laundry basket, smiling.
“Like an actress in a commercial.
“That’s what it 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.”
p48-49, One, The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

Again, not like the people where I used to live, but very like the place.