Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, her twelfth, is almost uncannily topical, but that’s not because she’s a headline-chaser. Yes, The Female Persuasion concerns female power and self-determination, reproductive freedom, and poorly handled incidents of campus sexual assault. But so did her earlier novels. Wolitzer was addressing questions about where feminism is headed long before what one of her characters calls the “big terribleness” following the 2016 presidential election.
But there’s more to Wolitzer’s fiction than timeliness. Much like her last book, The Interestings, her latest is an absorbing read that follows a handful of uncommonly sympathetic characters as they charge and muddle through decades of their lives, exploring their changing relationships with each other and their evolving attitudes towards what constitutes a successful, fulfilling life.
The Female Persuasion is the sixth of Wolitzer’s string of increasingly assertive novels with titles that begin with the definite article The. All written in the 21st century, this impressive run started with The Wife in 2003, followed in two or three-year intervals by The Position, The Ten-Year Nap, The Uncoupling, and The Interestings. (The Wife — in which a gifted writer accepts a rotten deal in agreeing to channel her own superior talent into her former teacher-turned-husband’s literary career – is still my favorite.) All six of these books showcase a blazingly ambitious writer on a mission to explore women’s place in contemporary society.
At the heart of The Female Persuasion is Greer Kadetsky, who we meet in 2006, at the beginning of her freshman year in college. Much to her dismay, an egregious lapse by her flaky parents has landed her at her “indistinguished” safety school in southern Connecticut instead of Yale. But by the end of Greer’s first semester, she’s made a lifelong friend and been through two galvanizing, life-changing experiences.
The first is a nasty one: at a frat party, an upperclassman reaches under her shirt, grabs her breast, and compounds the assault with sneering verbal abuse when she demands he stop. Greer is meek and soft-spoken, but she’s no pushover, and already has enough experience with her longtime boyfriend to know that this behavior is neither normal nor acceptable. Nor, it turns out, is hers an isolated incident with this creep. Yet when he’s finally hauled before the campus disciplinary committee, his many victims are enraged by how he wriggles away with barely a slap on the wrist.
The aftermath of this confrontation leads to a different, more fundamentally life-changing encounter: Greer’s best friend, Zee, a queer, ardent social activist, drags her to a talk by an elegant second wave feminist who is described as “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem.” Faith Frank, the longtime editor of a scrappy, dying magazine called Bloomer — apparently a whole flight down from Ms. – is an inspiring speaker, and Greer overcomes her crippling shyness to ask what she should do about the unfair outcome of the assault case. Faith is impressed enough to hand Greer her business card – which, like Chekhov’s gun on the mantel, we know will fire eventually.
Wolitzer is an inviting, undemanding writer, making it easy to get pulled into her characters’ lives as she alternates between them. As in The Interestings, she channels adolescents and twenty-somethings with obvious pleasure and ease. But the bald directness with which Wolitzer spells out Greer’s thoughts and stances — especially in her earnest, confessional outpourings (“I don’t really know how to be,” she tells Faith after ambushing her in the ladies’ room following her talk)– sometimes gives the novel the feel of young adult fiction. And despite all her gushing about “this strong, appealing, dignified older feminist” with her “indescribable” charisma, Faith comes across as somewhat canned
Fortunately, there are plenty of pithy observations to keep us entertained – like “the international symbol of female food: yogurt,” and a woman having her hair dyed looking “like some foil-headed Martian” — as the well-oiled narrative rolls along easily to its tidy conclusion.
Wolitzer’s clever title, The Female Persuasion, refers most directly to Faith’s eponymous bestselling manifesto, in which she “essentially implored women to see that there was a great deal more to being female than padded shoulders and acting tough.” But it also refers to persuasion as influence – a theme writ large with Greer’s hero-worship. Under Faith’s tutelage at a foundation that organizes special charity projects and forums on women’s issues, Greer happily emulates her mentor’s engaging speaking style and learns to use her own “outside voice” – even when it involves speaking up against Faith.
The foundation is funded by another of Faith’s smitten admirers, one with whom she had connected decades earlier in a delirious one-night-stand that ended badly. Whether zeroing in on Faith and this man, Greer and her boyfriend Cory, or Zee and the formidable woman she meets during a difficult stint teaching in a troubled inner-city Chicago charter school, Wolitzer writes beautifully about sex – yet another form of female persuasion. Capturing “the carbonation of arousal” and the profound gratification of connecting deeply with another human being on multiple levels, she remarks, “Sexual attraction was not an island; it was part of an archipelago that included trappings and context.”
It should be noted that not all of Wolitzer’s straight male characters are philanderers or jerks. In fact, Greer’s boyfriend Cory, who unhinges his life plan in response to a family tragedy, is an archetypal prince among men whose story highlights another salient theme of the novel: love, both lost and found.
The Female Persuasion is a big book with room for multiple dualities in its pages: disillusionment along with inspiration, compromises along with dreams, vulnerability along with strength, betrayal along with loyalty, and heartache as well as joy. It is an earnest, heartening reminder of the importance of learning to navigate all these states and never give up — even when the situation seems particularly bleak and demoralizing.