Books: Ladies in Retirement

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THE STEPFORD WIVES by IRA LEVIN 145 pages. Random House. $4.95.

Unspeakable changes in personality occur almost overnight among wives soon after they move to Stepford. With mingled horror and disbelief, Joanna, the heroine of this minor movie in hardback form, questions the ten-year-old son of a woman friend who has been thus mysteriously afflicted.

"I—I can't get over the way your mother's changed," says Joanna. "Neither can I," the boy replies.

"She doesn't shout any more, she makes hot breakfast." Taxed directly with her bizarre behavior, the poor woman whines, "It's no disgrace to be a good homemaker."

Those of us who are not against a spot of hot oatmeal on a frosty morning, may wonder at Joanna's perturbation. But Joanna is a clever modern wife. She has a husband who cheerfully shares her household chores. Joanna has just moved to Stepford too. Gradually — about 27½ steps behind the reader — she puts the whole sinister plot together. Why Stepford wives never use baby sitters. Why Stepford wives put the packages neatly in their carts at the supermarket. Why the Stepford Women's Club closed down shortly after it was addressed by Betty Friedan.

Ira Levin has had his greatest success with books (A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary's Baby) that turn on the fact that men (especially lovers and husbands) will do absolutely anything to women. The plasticity of the Stepford wives, therefore, is linked to the secretive Men's Association up on the hill with its gifted membership, including a chap who once helped animate all those historical characters out in Disneyland.

This is really a short story with delusions of grandeur. But Levin skillfully manipulates the reader's feelings of suspense about Joanna, and whether or not she could do with a little domestic transformation — thus catering to male chauvinists and Women's Liberationists alike. The final message is clear and simple. As an assortment of duennas in 1930s movies used to warn their pretty charges (Frances Dee, Annabella, Maureen O'Sullivan): "Men are interested in just two things. And food's the other one."

· Timothy Foote