The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

It’s tough to put The Stepford Wives into a genre. See below for my attempt to do so. (No spoliers.)

The 2004 film version of The Stepford Wives, starring Nicole Kidman, is billed as a “comedy/sci-fi/thriller”, though the 1975 version is listed as “horror/mystery/sci-fi”. I once saw the newer one, and I remember it as occasionally funny but not particularly well done.

Amazon says the novel is:
women’s fiction > friendship 
literature and fiction > horror
literature and fiction > genre fiction > horror

I beg to differ. It’s certainly not women’s fiction in the sense of being light chick lit reading for the beach. Calling it “women’s fiction” at all seems completely inappropriate. Nor does the novel seem to me to have much in common with obvious examples of the modern horror genre, such as Stephen King’s It, which is being talked about constantly right now because of the new movie version that’s playing.

Peter Straub (horror author) wrote an introduction to the edition I read on my Kindle*. That would indicate that the novel is horror… except that Straub calls The Stepford Wives a ‘satire’.

Wikipedia calls it a ‘satirical thriller’, and I think that’s about right; therefore if you, like me, avoid horror books in general, I’d say you can still consider reading The Stepford Wives because it’s not horror. (To put it more concretely, the Stepford wives may be zombie-like in some ways, but they’re not actual zombies.)

What’s the difference between ‘horror’ and ‘thriller’? I’m not the best person to answer the question, but the internet seems to say that horror shows you shocking things, whereas thrillers keep you in suspense. Then the difference between a thriller and a mystery is (maybe) that thrillers are villain-driven and mysteries are protagonist-driven.

The novel somewhat resembles Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, a bleak literary feminist dystopia, but more than that it resembles a sci-fi short story like the creepy few I’ve read by Ray Bradbury.

In general I don’t read sci-fi short stories (or any short stories, though there have been exceptions), but I’ve seen films made from them, notably Arrival , Predestination, and several made from stories by Philip K. Dick. Such stories are very sharp and clear, and have one very interesting if fantastical idea that serves as the premise; the characters exist to plunge the reader into the consequences and implications of that premise, even if you don’t know exactly what the premise is until the heart-wrenching twist at the end.

I’m not sure whether cultural osmosis has given away the premise of The Stepford Wives, but I’m choosing not to. Even if you know it (as I did), the story is enjoyable to read because it’s got all these hints and carefully ambiguous statements in it that are hilarious if you know where the plot is headed.

Straub’s introduction gives the premise away, so it should really be an afterword, but it’s nevertheless a welcome addition to the eBook. It highlights the way in which Ira Levin’s satirical thriller is constructed: carefully and concisely. The Stepford Wives is lean, mean, and memorable.

In fact, the book as social commentary has had a noticeable cultural impact in that “Stepford wife” is now a term of disparagement used to draw attention to apparently un-modern levels of wifely devotion, or even suspiciously repetitive statements about wine.

When and Why I Read The Stepford Wives

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book club for October 2017.

Genre: fiction
Date started / date finished:  24-Sep-17 to 25-Sep-17
Length: 148 pages
ISBN: B004T4N366
Originally published in: 1972
Amazon link: The Stepford Wives


*The Kindle version introduced by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, is cheaper, I now notice, than the one introduced by Peter Straub. Go figure.