Sunday 20 January 2019

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

After Ira Levin's longest novel, This Perfect Day, comes his shortest — The Stepford Wives is more a novella in length, but it is perfectly judged and doesn't need a single word more to accomplish its effect, which is explosive and quite stunning.

The book immediately feels like a companion piece to A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary's Baby — there is a powerful sense of continuity here in its depiction of women being victimised by men. 

It is closer to Rosemary's Baby, though, since again we have here a tight narrative focused on a central female character who is the protagonist of the story, and its prime victim.

Indeed, the general contours of the plot of The Stepford Wives closely follow that of Rosemary's Baby — a couple move to a new place, the man is drawn into a group from which the woman is excluded, and becomes part of a sinister plot being hatched against her.

In other ways it's dramatically different, though. Here we have the suburbs versus the city (ironically, one reason Joanna Eberhart has left New York City for Stepford, Connecticut, is because she thinks it will be safer); science fiction versus supernatural horror; and a mother who is run off her feet looking after two kids versus a young woman dreaming of starting a family.

Also, Joanna's husband Walter is an attorney, not an actor like Rosemary's husband Guy — although arguably that makes both of them trained and professional liars.

Initially Stepford is idyllic: "The day was vivid and gem-edged, a signal of autumn," and Joanna and Walter are soon sitting on the porch of their new house at the end of the day savouring the "cool blue dusk twanging with crickets."

Then Walter disappears to visit a male neighbour and Joanna crosses her the lawn as night comes on, to invite the housewife next door over for coffee. "'Thanks, I'd like to,' Carol said, 'but I have to wax the family-room floor.'"
At night? thinks Joanna, experiencing the first tremor of the strangeness of Stepford...

A strangeness which will come to centre on the Men's Association with its high fence — "'To keep women out.'" Joanna wisecracks, not realising she's stumbled on a deep, dark truth.

"'I like to watch women doing little domestic chores," is the chilling remark of one Dale Coba. ("'You came to the right town,'" replies our spunky heroine.) 
Coba is president of the Men's Association, and like Guy in Rosemary's Baby, or Bud in A Kiss Before Dying, he's the smiling, self-regarding psychopath who won't hesitate to make a woman his victim.

Near the end of the book Joanna is invited to visit the Men's Association and inspect its premises. She says, "'I wouldn't set foot in there without an armed guard... Of women soldiers.'"

The Stepford Wives is simultaneously rivettingly sinister and laugh-out-loud funny — one hell of an accomplishment — as Joanna begins to realise just how odd Stepford is.

"'This is Zombieville!'" announces her new friend Bobbie, who has also come to realise, "'Something fishy is going on here! We're in the Town That Time Forgot!'"

But that's before Bobbie becomes one of them...

The Stepford Wives is plotted so deftly and with such precision that it's awe inspiring. The unravelling of a terrifying conspiracy is cunningly layered among the domestic trivia of everyday family life.

Stephen King is right when he says "Levin is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel."

Levin is also the master of the subtle, potent little moment, such as Walter hesitating to kiss Bobbie after she's undergone her transformation, like Guy avoiding Rosemary after the devil has had her — he knows what has been done.

Towards the end of the book the suspense becomes unbearable as Joanna makes a determined attempt to leave Stepford and her husband digs in his heels. My stomach ached with sympathy for her plight. Indeed I grew so angry I had to put the book down.

But you can be damned sure I picked it up again and read hungrily to the end.

I don't want to specify the exact nature of the threat against Joanna, although right on page 1 of the edition I read, the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk let's the cat out of the bag (as do some of the covers of the foreign language editions I researched for illustrating this post).

Whether or not you already know the dark secret of Stepford and its Men's Association, I urge you to read this perfectly crafted short novel. It is an exquisitely rendered masterpiece of suspense — and also a scalding piece of social criticism which is, sadly, as relevant as ever.

(Image credits: The British hardback Michael Joseph edition, with an excellent black and white photo by John Evans, and the American hardcover with the Paul Bacon painting of nine women's faces, are both scanned from my own library. The others covers I pillaged from a healthy selection — though, as noted, some contain outrageous spoilers — at Good Reads.)


  1. Having seen both movie versions of this book (not to mention other, similar takes on this theme), I've been well and truly spoiled for the novel. It's the loss of agency and loss of individual identity which are the most frightening aspects for me. That's one reason I've always had a bit of fear of any organization which tries to inculcate groupthink (the military, the police, fraternities, religions, my current employer, etc.). They're all so EARNEST in their beliefs, and The Stepford Wives' earnestness, while jarring, is so similar to that "normal" kind of groupthink that it takes too long for Joanna to catch on to what's really going on.

    If I hadn't seen the movies, this would easily be on my list to read, but my TBR pile is too large as it is, so I'll have to settle for the movies.

    1. I need to watch the original movie again myself. Of course, I sympathise with your huge pile of to-be-read books — we've all been there! But this novel, or rather novella, is very short and a very easy read. You could devour it in an evening. And it's so beautifully written and subtle and clever that it's worth savouring even if you know the plot very well...

  2. James Mendur, the pleasure of reading Stepford Wives is not diminished by knowing the denouncement; think of Hitchcock showing us the bomb under the table.