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It's said that sex is 10 per cent of a good relationship and 90 per cent of a bad one. Meg Wolitzer's new novel takes that old saw, sharpens it and polishes it until it gleams: The Uncoupling is a smart, tender and utterly hilarious look at the fragility of desire, and the pain that so often attends its disappearance.

A new drama teacher arrives at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in suburban New Jersey and immediately undertakes to stage Aristophanes's Lysistrata. It's a racy choice for a school play, depicting as it does a group of women who hold a sex strike in response to prolonged warfare on the part of their menfolk. Like hunger strikers, Aristophanes's women hurt themselves as much as their victims; after all, they need sex too.

But soon after rehearsals start, "ElRo's" female teachers and students mysteriously decide en masse that they can happily do without. One by one, they turn away from their partners for reasons they cannot explain, leaving the men confused and angry (strangely, the spell does not affect gay couples). But since sex within a committed relationship is the other love that dare not speak its name, the town's collective pain can only be expressed behind clenched teeth. Nobody can quite say what's happening, but everyone feels it.

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One suffering couple is the Langs, a previously happy pair of 40-year-old English teachers ("young but not too young; old but not too old"). The efforts of poor Robby Lang to defrost his wife are as poignant as they are humorous: These include a cheesy "erotic" board game and an oil-scented bath that turns into a bony stew of crashing limbs. At one point, Robby threatens to hire a prostitute. "Maybe one could be dressed up to resemble you," he tells his wife sourly. "She could carry a curriculum handbook."

The Langs' daughter, Willa, enacts a teenage version of this scenario with her boyfriend Eli, an after-school Casanova whose moves are equally earnest, though they'll prove ineffective down the road; in one scene, for example, he lures Willa up to his room and suavely plies her with a pre-makeout glass of milk. "My special concoction," he tells her. "It's called Shirt-Be-Gone."

The Uncoupling is notable for its virtual lack of actual sex scenes. Wolitzer wisely chooses instead to examine the varied forces that impinge on intimacy, such as boredom, illness, aging and career problems. Her choice of title is most interesting too, since it would seem to front a book about divorce, and not divorce's all-too-frequent precursor. It's a title that underscores how important and - strangely, for a sex-mad world - uncharted her chosen territory is.

One final point: Novelists, filmmakers and musicians now tend to look at suburban life the way Dante looked at hell, perhaps in reaction to their own arid childhoods. Wolitzer takes a refreshingly contrary view. Her characters are affectionate and savvy, with infinitely complex lives. She laughs but never mocks, mining the seams of her big treeless streets and striking comic gold on every page. This novel is simply a joy to read.

Cynthia Macdonald is a Toronto journalist, critic and frequent reviewer for Books.

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