Picture, if you will, the stereotype of the ‘50s American Housewife. The perfect hair and makeup, the ever-present smile, the look of joy when presented with the newest in cooking and cleaning products. Her house is spotless. She always has dinner hot and ready for her husband when he gets home from work. She is the quintessential homemaker, and it is a role she fills happily and without complaint.
Just don’t look too carefully at her face. Because that smile is a rictus, and something behind her eyes is screaming.
BEHIND THE PEN
Ira Levin (August 27, 1929 – November 12, 2007), was a New York-born playwright and novelist whose best-known novels include A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Boys From Brazil (plus HOWLS favorite Son of Rosemary.) His play Deathtrap remains the longest-running thriller in Broadway history. His work has been repeatedly adapted for the silver screen, most recently Rosemary’s Baby as a miniseries in 2014.
Levin was known for his tight plotting, fast pacing, and constantly ratcheting tension. All three of these are on display in The Stepford Wives.
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
When Joanna Eberhart moves to Stepford with her husband and children, she can’t help but notice that there’s something…off about the neighborhood’s wives. They’re the perfect homemakers, always cooking, cleaning and hosting guests with perfect manners and aplomb. They defer to their husbands on everything. They appear to have no opinions, hobbies, or interests of their own.
Joanna and her friends, the few “normal” wives in the neighborhood, agree that it’s strange. But it’s when her friends drop their jobs and hobbies to become submissive housewives, one by one, that she realizes something sinister is happening in Stepford. Can she find out what happened to the Stepford Wives…before it happens to her?
VOICES FROM WITHIN
A book about male pushback to women’s liberation received the expected reaction from HOWLS, namely anger that the themes are still so relevant and a call for the male characters to be pushed into a woodchipper. Reading about the brand of male entitlement that doesn’t see women as people and would eventually give us incels struck a little too close to home for several HOWLers. “I actually think I would have quit reading if we hadn’t been doing this for a book club discussion,” said @wytwavedarling, speaking for at least one other member.
The iconic image of the Stepford Wife started a long discussion about the image of the ‘50s housewife, her origin in propaganda, and how she was invented to get women back into the kitchen after their entry into the job market during World War II. People shared stories of their parents and their grandparents and consensus was that even in the ‘50s, women were never conforming to the domestic image the media was selling.
Readers familiar with the film adaptations were surprised at how ambiguous Levin was about what was actually happening in Stepford. In an ironic twist, it was so ambiguous that someone proposed this novel about a woman being gaslit was happening inside the protagonist’s head. Other HOWLers were less amused. @Cheese Dance summarized it thus: “Our society is very prone to thinking it’s all in a woman’s head, and so when the book really goes out of its way to show something is going on and [a reader] claims she’s crazy anyway, it just feels like reinforcing the dominant narrative that women’s judgement and perceptions can’t be trusted.”
Overall, HOWLers enjoyed the book’s easy readability, its sense of creeping unease, and commentary on gender politics. “Even though I’d seen both of the movies, reading the book really showed me how iconic this story is,” said @psyche. @Probable Hag added, “even with the more ambiguous ending, the novel shows how women can be isolated, gaslit, and made to question even their own sanity.”
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- A classic for a reason! Utterly readable and enjoyable, while also being layered with commentary on the American households of generations passed.
- Feminist women don’t hate men…they fear men. (I don’t know if that will work for anything, but I think it just sounds cool.)
~@Amanda Nevada DeMel
- Intense, lean, second-wave feminism thriller. And you thought the suburbs were disturbing before you visited Stepford.
- Clever and quick, this suspenseful tale will have you riveted. Even if you know what happens, worth a read for its excellent dialogue.
- I don’t *really* hate men, but I definitely hate *these* men. The kind of book that stirs both righteous anger and self doubt in equal measure.
- A terrifying extrapolation on moving to the suburbs. How far will the men of Stepford go to mold their wives into their own idea of a perfect housewife from an old coffee ad?
- The Stepford Wives is a great slow burn of suspense. Relevant and impactful though ultimately too ambiguous.
- The Stepford Wives is a horror classic. Smartly written, a fast read, will stick with you.
- First with Rosemary’s Baby, and now with The Stepford Wives, I have come to learn that Ira Levin is a master of gaslighting. He utilizes dread in such a creeping way that by the time you realize you should run, it is waaay too late.
With its smart dialogue, relevant themes, and Levin’s ever readable prose, The Stepford Wives is worth your time even if you go in knowing the big twist. Don’t spend too much time in Stepford, though. After a few months, you might not recognize yourself.