The Female Persuasion
(Riverhead Books, 2018)
Much has already been written about Meg Wolitzer’s lengthy new novel The Female Persuasion, calling it everything from the “Great American Novel” to retro elitist white middle-class feminism. I would argue that this novel is neither of those but exhibits both elements of genius and significant limitations for a twenty-first century feminist novel. The story focuses around Greer Kadetsky, a young white woman working to find her way in the world and to figure out her own relationship with feminism. This search is primarily focused on her fan-girl relationship with much older “rock star” feminist, Faith Frank. The two initially meet at Greer’s fictional second-rate small liberal arts college (Ryland), and a connection is made. While Greer is frustrated by her college administration’s failure to expel or even appropriately punish a serial sexual predator, she is also confused by Faith’s advice to let it go. During their interaction, Faith gives Greer a business card, but it takes time for Greer to actually follow up.
In the meandering narrative, we learn much about Greer, her move to Brooklyn (where she unbelievably quickly lands a suitable apartment), her career and relationship struggles, and her growing commitment to feminism. When Greer finally reaches out to Faith, she’s immediately offered a job interview at Faith’s long-running feminist magazine, Bloomer. But the day Greer shows up for the interview is also the day Bloomer folds. Greer’s boyfriend Cory (aka Duarte Jr.) goes off to Asia to work in finance, and not much happens in the novel for a bit. Eventually Greer ends up being hired in an entry-level position at Faith’s new non-profit venture “Loci,” which just happens to be bankrolled by Faith’s one-time one-night-stand, venture capitalist Emmett Shrader. The parallels with various real world people and events should give a level of realism to the novel but instead are often just frustrating.
Greer’s launch into the world of professional feminism has a fast trajectory (she works at Loci for four years), although Wolitzer uses phrases like “several years” to somehow suggest a longer passage of time. And this is another aspect of the novel that doesn’t really work—it takes more than a few years to build a career, but Greer manages somehow, just as she manages to land a Brooklyn apartment and to save money while working at a non-profit and paying rent. Greer becomes frustrated with her work at Loci, and when a former ShraderCapital employee tells her a dark and dirty secret, she confronts Faith who unbelievably publicly humiliates Greer, ending their work and professional relationship.
While there are issues about the use of various tropes and criticisms surrounding so-called “second wave” feminism throughout the novel, there are larger issues of structure that can frustrate the reader. The novel starts out with two main characters (Greer and Faith), but midway through we are given long sections dedicated to the other people in Greer’s life. While these sections do serve to give added depth to these other characters, they leave Greer and the main narrative of the novel mostly on hold while we work through some one hundred pages of minor narratives. Greer’s long-time boyfriend Cory has his own section focused on his attempted recovery from a terrible family tragedy. Greer’s college best friend Zee also has her own lengthy section showing her succeed as a “trauma specialist” in Chicago after working for a fictional version of Teach for America. Zee is Greer’s out, gay friend, described as “innately, bracingly political,” the reason Greer goes to see Faith speak at college, and seemingly Wolitzer’s attempt to be more inclusive in this sprawling novel. While Greer’s boyfriend is the son of first generation Portuguese immigrants, Zee is comfortable being queer (her preferred term) and ends up married to a black woman. Perhaps it’s difficult to write a truly inclusive novel of modern feminism when the two main characters are relatively privileged white women, but Wolitzer’s attempts to be inclusive are often clunky (as an example, she tries to slip the word “trans” into the novel in a brief inessential passage).
What The Female Persuasion is not is a viable manifesto for modern feminism, but what it is is a mostly well-wrought narrative of two white women: one older, one younger, and their struggles to survive with some level of moral integrity in a world where women of all backgrounds are often discounted and don’t matter. Faith is an interesting amalgamation of “sexy boots” and early feminist convictions; she is also clearly a pastiche of Gloria Steinem and other less glamorous &lrdquo;second wave” American feminists. That Greer is Faith’s legacy is seemingly intended in the novel but also frustrating for anyone interested in the future of American feminism. A bookish white girl whose parents messed up her financial aid forms to Yale, she ends up at fictional Ryland College where she studies, gets groped at a frat party, and Skypes with her high school boyfriend. She’s not unlikeable, but she’s not all that interesting either. Her easy path to New York and quick entry into high-level non-profit work and publishing makes for good forward motion to the novel but lends to the critique of lack of viability. This lack of viability expands when the end of the novel presents us with Greer’s shining new hetero-normative life—Cory is back, they’re married and have a baby, and the advance from her first book has enabled the young couple to buy a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
That said, there is much that’s good in this book—Faith’s moral equivocating is well wrought, as is the extended passage focused on Cory’s grief (however unconnected it may be from the main narrative). Greer is a mostly likeable character, although she’s positioned as less privileged than she actually is (many of us have had to overcome much more than stoner parents), and her naiveté is at times difficult to believe. One critic described Greer as a fantasy construct that would appeal to many older white feminists, and maybe that’s true. And it’s not the fault of the novel that so many critics are treating it as if it should have some great message for our own lives, as if it were a treatise for feminist living in line with fictional Faith Frank’s second wave manifesto The Female Persuasion or Greer’s own semi-autobiographical self-help book Outside Voices. Wolitzer’s novel is a fiction and arguably should not be held up to the same standards as non-fiction. It’s a story about a young woman, an older woman, and two of the young woman’s friends; it’s not a guide for twenty-first century feminism, and it’s both limiting and unfair to treat it as more than what it is—a good novel.