Kindle edition; first published 1972
At once a masterpiece of psychological suspense and a savage commentary on a media-driven society that values the pursuit of youth and beauty at all costs, 'The Stepford Wives' is a novel so frightening in its final implications that the title itself has earned a place in the American lexicon.
This was a re-read for me, and one that I think was actually better the second time around. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their family have moved to the idyllic town of Stepford, leaving behind a city that Joanna in particular loves: New York. A professional photographer and active member of the women's movement, Joanna is keen to meet like-minded neighbours, only to find that Stepford is not exactly a bastion of progression. While Walter ingratiates himself at the local Men's Association, Joanna is left dealing with women who'd rather buff their floors to within an inch of their lives than venture beyond their own doorsteps.
The Stepford Wives is fantastic and disturbing and, above all, chilling. Levin doesn't need monsters and things that go bump in the night: he just needs to create a situation that is both ludicrous and not ludicrous enough to dismiss. As Joanna starts to piece things together and gets closer to unravelling the mystery of Stepford, he conclusions seem both ridiculous and... possible. It is that hint of the possible that makes The Stepford Wives work, and makes it so effective in the process.
On a second reading, I was able to spot the seeds that Levin plants from the very beginning, all of which come together later in the plot to great effect. The Stepford Wives deals in the limits of a society's views on women and their 'place', in the value we place on beauty and youth and silence, and (as Chuck Palahniuk points out in the introduction) is still as relevant today as when it was written.
And that final chapter is still like being punched in the stomach.
Overall rating: 9/10
Book source: Purchased from Amazon.co.uk.