Pros: Creepy mix of suspense and social commentary, hilarious at times
Cons: Somewhat sloppy writing, and...purple boobs?
The late Ira Levin was more than just an author of satire-laced suspense novels about mothers of the Antichrist or plots to revive a Nazi empire by bringing to life several clones of Adolf Hitler. The man was a veritable "Swiss Army knife" of the American literary and musical theater worlds; during his 44-year-long career (1953-1997) as a writer, he wrote seven novels, nine plays and the musical Drat! The Cat!, for which he also wrote the lyrics to the songs.
Even though he'll be known for his adaptation of No Time for Sergeants and Deathtrap, his sardonic take on Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries, Levin's creepy-yet-satirical suspense novels will probably remain his biggest literary legacy.
Although overshadowed by Rosemary's Baby and somewhat undermined by a series of made-for-TV sequels to the 1975 film adaptation, Levin's The Stepford Wives is both a suspenseful (if somewhat slight) horror novel and a sly satire mocking American unease with the then-burgeoning Women's Liberation movement.
The novel centers on Joanna Eberhart, a witty, bright woman in her early 30s who's married to Walter Eberhart and mother of two children. The Eberharts have just moved to the all-American, white-picket fence suburban community of Stepford, Connecticut, which at first glance looks idyllic as all get-out but (as in most of Levin's works of fiction) hides some pretty dark, sinister secrets.
As the novel opens, Walter and Joanna apparently see eye-to-eye on almost every political and/or social issue, including the notion of women's equality. After all, Walter did marry a very assertive, intelligent woman with artistic talent (Joanna is a photographer), and not a submissive, airheaded (and big-breasted) hausfrau, right?
It's odd, then, that Walter should have chosen Stepford as a place in which to live, work, and raise his two kids in, because the place seems to be populated by a most curious mix of intelligent-but-somewhat-domineering (white) males and their submissive, airheaded (and big-breasted) hausfrau wives.
Even odder, then, is Walter's decision to join the Stepford Men's Association, which on the surface would seem to be the male equivalent to, um, the Garden Ladies, but is really sort of like Stepford's shadow government; it's almost like the KGB or the Gestapo in its subtle pervasiveness in every aspect of its inhabitants' lives.
For Joanna, Stepford is definitely the opposite of her ideal place to live in. It's a nice little town, as far as appearances go, but there's something unsettling about how the women, with the notable exception of Joanna's two like-minded friends, Charmaine Wimperis and Bobbie Markowe, are obsessed with doing housework, looking impeccably dressed and made-up, and have almost uniformly ample boobs that would make Jane Russell turn green with envy.
At first, Joanna is puzzled by the somewhat TV-commercial-like behavior of the "Stepford Wives," particularly after several failed attempts to socialize with some of the submissive, airheaded (and big-breasted) hausfrau types. In one instance, she invites Carol, the wife of the Men's Association grand poobah, but Mrs. Poobah declines, saying she must wax her house's floors at night. Meanwhile, Mr. Poobah - okay, Ted Van Sant - is having fun at the Men's Association, presumably watching stag movies, playing poker, telling tall tales about fishing, or whatever it is that all the guys do at Men's Association meetings.
An attempt by Joanna, Bobbie, and Charmaine to create a Women's Association to enlighten the submissive, airheaded (and big-breasted) hausfraus dies due to the Stepford Wives' indifference, and things go darker and more sinister when the fiery, independent and modestly-breasted Charmaine suddenly becomes, well, a Stepford Wife. Soon, Joanna and Bobbie start wondering if something sinister is afoot in Stepford, and if so, what? And who is behind it?
While Levin's writing is a bit off at times - women's breasts don't get purple when they are in a hot shower - and some of the prose does get, um, purple in places, The Stepford Wives is both a dark satire that takes on both the pervasiveness of television commercials in everyday life and the backwards-moving backlash to the women's lib movement of the 1960s and '70s and a creepy and suspenseful thriller that, once the reader buys into its premise, grabs one by the throat and never does let go.
Although far from perfect and not as good as some of Levin's other novels, The Stepford Wives is still worth a read and is much, much better than the 2004 remake of the 1975 film adaptation.