Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: April 3, 2018
There has been a lot written about Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Female Persuasion. The novel will resonate with an entire generation of women who, after joining the workforce, longed for a mentor to guide them. For Greer Kadetsky, an intensely shy college student, that woman is Faith Frank, a feminist icon. Except, Greer didn’t even know who Faith was or that she wanted to work with her. It was her friend Zee who was the activist and who actually gave Greer her first opportunity to interact with Faith, at a student event when they are in college. After graduation and at loose ends Greer is hired by Faith in a new undertaking—a women’s empowerment foundation, funded by a finance billionaire looking to divert scrutiny from some of his less scrupulous actions. Greer and Faith embark on this venture with little idea on how to find the happy place between profitability and making a difference. Along the way, each makes decisions that rub hard against the woman they thought themselves to be.
There is so much to love about The Female Persuasion—mostly the femaleness of it. It’s a novel where the key characters are very real women going through very real life in America today. There are men, but they are largely relegated to ancillary roles, with the exception of Greer’s long-time boyfriend, Cory. Instead, Wolitzer settles firmly in on the three women—Greer as she begins to explore the power of ambition, Faith as she tries to gild a legacy before she’s out of time and energy, and Zee, who is filled with passion but can’t seem to focus her energy enough to do something with it. Wolitzer writes so authentically that some aspect of each woman’s life will resonate with all women. She does the same thing with time and place in the novel, which ends in 2019, touching on the new feminism and the feelings of women across America who are coming to grips with a president who, as one woman says:
“…is that the worst kind of man, the kind that you would never allow yourself to be alone with because you would know he was a danger to you, was left alone with all of us.”
The female perspective is such a critical part of The Female Persuasion that I was jolted in the last quarter of the book when Wolitzer shifts the focus to Cory and what is happening in his life. He is the only male in the novel who’s given a real presence, and earlier it’s used to great advantage, illuminating the impact of the difference in his upbringing versus Greer’s, but by this point in the novel I didn’t care about the specifics of what he was doing. Inclusion is great, but this felt like intrusion. I resented being torn away from Greer, Faith, and Zee to read about a man’s business venture—even if it was very personal and dear to Cory’s heart.
Still, this is a small blip in a novel that both welcomes and challenges. Welcomes because so much of what is experienced by Faith, Greer, and Zee is familiar and likely to provoke introspection. Challenging because Wolitzer doesn’t let any of her characters off easily. She probes at Greer, making us wiggle uncomfortably as her incisive prose hits close to the not-so-pretty aspects of ourselves we’d prefer to ignore. And while I squirmed at times, I appreciate that Wolitzer doesn’t try and attribute to women some blessed transcendence of nurturing versus power. Instead, she goes all in by taking The Female Persuasion to a delicate intersection—that between friendship and ambition. Are women more altruistic than men? Will we choose to sacrifice ourselves for a friend? For someone who might want it more? Questions like these arise and rather than providing pat answers Wolitzer leaves them wonderfully unanswered, ripe for contemplation and discussion.