7 Novels About Sex in Suburbia
Julie Langsdorf, author of "White Elephant," on fiction that reveals what goes on behind the white picket fences
Electric Lit is 12 years old! Help support the next dozen years by helping us raise $12,000 for 12 years, and get exclusive merch!
When people ask me to describe my novel, White Elephant, I tell them it’s about a developer who moves into an established community, starts tearing down homes and ignites a fuse — which leads them to assume it’s a book about real estate. And arguably, it is. The book opens with a character thinking about her husband’s feud with the neighbor who’s building oversize houses in their neighborhood — but she’s also thinking about sex. Sex is actually her first thought, as sex is higher on her priority list — while construction is higher on her husband’s.
The character — Allison — might be just a tad obsessed with sex, possibly as a result of her husband’s priorities. She entertains herself during her many dog walks through her neighborhood by imagining the sex lives of her neighbors. Good sex. Bad. Energetic. Kinky. She imagines who has fun in bed, and who will divorce a few years down the road.
As a former suburbanite, I can relate. While I didn’t play that particular game, I did find myself imagining the lives lived within the houses in my neighborhood, with their tightly sealed garages, and action-hiding window treatments. Judging by the number of books about suburbia, books that often focus on the sex lives of its denizens, I have to guess Allison and I are not the only ones with this preoccupation. The following are a few of my favorites.
Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos
While most of these stories take place in fictional towns, Summerlong takes place in Grinnell, Iowa, where, it appears, having sex and smoking weed are the primary pastimes. The story begins when the town realtor, Don Lowry (“It’s your home, but it’s my business!”), finds a young woman beneath a tree whom he believes to be dead. She’s not. He winds up spending the night with her, not having sex, but smoking lots of weed. Have no fear: there’s plenty of sex yet to come — plenty — along with skinny dipping, house breaking, wild parties, infidelity, references to Madam Bovary and questions of life and death in this story of a strange, firefly-filled summer.
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, also pays tribute to Madam Bovary — it’s the book being read in the town book club. No coincidence there. The book posits many charged questions: Will Sarah, the stay-at-home mom who is surprised to find that she’s a stay-at-home-mom, sleep with Todd, the stay-at-home dad dubbed “The Prom King” by the other moms? What will happen to the sex offender who lives down the street? And what about Sarah’s (creepy) husband’s sordid little secret? Little Children is darkly funny and compelling — and was made into a great movie starring Kate Winslet.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Which brings me to another novel of suburbia that became a terrific movie starring Kate Winslet along with Leonardo DiCaprio. Revolutionary Road manages both to be extremely dark and extremely funny, and is one of the mostly acutely observed books I’ve ever read (and re-read and re-read). Sex is conniving and dangerous, the antithesis of April and Frank Wheeler’s thrilling plans for the future, in this book about a desperate couple seeking to break out of the confines of suburban life.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
Sex is the engine that drives Rick Moody’s dark comedy The Ice Storm, set in the affluent Connecticut suburbs in the early 1970s. Everyone from adult to teenager is preoccupied with it, sneaking off to bedrooms and basements to partake. Alcohol and drug abuse, too, know no age limits. The climax, as it were, comes during a winter storm on the night of the partner-swapping key party in this dark comic novel about isolation and boredom in mid-century America.
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
Meg Wolitzer’s The Uncoupling is a little like A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, only just the opposite.Instead of magic that causes people to fall in love with the first person they meet in ancient Athens, magic causes the women to completely lose interest in sex in Stellar Plains, New Jersey. The play within the novel is Lysistrata — Aristophane’s play about women withholding sex to end the Peloponnesian War — which is in rehearsals at the high school. Before the no-sex spell is cast, there’s sex though, both teenage and middle aged. The denouement arrives on the night of the play’s performance.
The Arrangementby Sarah Dunn
In Sarah Dunn’s The Arrangement, sex is not just a subplot, but the main event. A couple decides to give each other a six-month pass — the eponymous arrangement — during which they are allowed to have sex with pretty much whomever they please. They draw up the rules on a piece of paper with an orange sharpie and off they go. There are fun subplots that involve chickens and camels and men in skirts. A terrific story of love and marriage that is thought provoking in addition to being absolutely hilarious.
The Position by Meg Wolitzer
The Position, also by Wolitzer, starts on the third floor of a house in Wontauket, New York in the 1970s, where the four Mellow children have discovered the bestselling sex book their parents not only have written, but have modeled for. Yes, shudder. Thirty years later, everyone’s still traumatized. The Position is by turns funny and sad, and sometimes sweetly hopeful.