At the beginning of Meg Wolitzer’s excellent new novel The Female Persuasion (Riverhead Books, 2018) protagonist Greer Kadetsky’s freshman year at an undistinguished Connecticut college is a struggle. Her boyfriend Cory attends Stanford—and Greer was accepted to Yale, but couldn’t attend because her parents were too stoned to fill out her financial aid forms. Feeling damned to an eternity of weekend nights in the dorm study lounge, Greer hits a party with her new friend Zee, and is brazenly groped.
Greer asks around and finds the culprit to be a serial creep who manages to evade any sort of real discipline. Greer and Zee take the law into their own hands and print shirts exposing the groper as a serial offender. They wear their shirts to a speech given by Faith Frank, a groundbreaking feminist magazine publisher. Faith takes an interest in Greer after a chance meeting in the bathroom, and this wide-reaching novel is on its way.
The Female Persuasion follows Greer and Faith over the course of some twenty-ish years. Faith’s groundbreaking magazine Bloomer—“named for Amelia Bloomer, the feminist and social reformer who published the first newspaper for women” and considered “the scrappier, less famous little sister to Ms. Magazine”—folds. Faith’s new venture is Loci, an organization dedicated to promoting women’s issues. The organization is funded by Emmett Shrader. Faith first met him during her brief stint as a Las Vegas cocktail waitress, then had a brief fling with him years later, before he became wildly successful—and not always ethical—in the world of finance.
Loci funds the rescue of a hundred Ecuadoran women from sexual slavery, and provides them with strong woman mentors to help them reintegrate into society. Crowdsourcing helps fund and hype this effort. Greer, though, discovers that the promised mentors were not delivered, and splits with Loci when Faith declines to go public with the information.
Greer and Faith’s split emphasizes the struggle between pragmatism vs. idealism: should one use a large platform to deliver a message to as many people as possible, or, instead, should values never be compromised, even in the face of disgrace? This split is further emphasized by outgoing, affable Zee’s hope that Greer will pass a letter requesting a job on to Faith. Instead, Greer keeps the letter in a desk drawer and lies to Zee, telling her that no opportunities were available. This betrayal positions Greer not only as Faith’s symbolic double, but as Zee’s, making Greer one side of the career vs. friends/family argument.
The Female Persuasion offers no answers to these ethical quandaries, instead letting readers ruminate through Wolitzer’s presentation of nuanced, entirely human characters. We see Greer watch her longtime boyfriend Cory return home from a high-profile finance job abroad to take care of his family after his mother kills his brother in an unfortunate car accident. Greer disapproves of Cory’s choice to take care of his mother, and to pick up the slack in the family housecleaning business. Cory, Greer thinks, is stuck in a rut, descending into videogames as refuge, underachieving in a dead-end job. Wolitzer’s sly commentary on the inversion of traditional gender roles is emphasized by Cory’s fastidious care of Slowey, his deceased brother’s turtle. Slowey is a modest but steady presence throughout the book, a symbol that progress can be steady but frustratingly plodding.
As with her previous novels—most recently in 2013’s The Interestings—Wolitzer has a keen ear for dialogue and a well-honed eye for detail. She effortlessly shifts from past to present day, from New York City to the Phillipines to Western Massachusetts, breaking chronology to add depth and specificity to her well-rounded cast of characters, reconfirming her status as one of our best novelists.
It would be easy to think of The Female Persuasion as prescient—I’m sure Wolitzer’s novel will be referred to as such somewhere in the review cycle, what with its echoes of #metoo and even the recent March for Our Lives. Sadly, I don’t think prescient is the right word. Nuanced discussions on the implications of feminism—and the compromises and difficulties and inroads made—have been in progress for years. It’s just that not everyone was listening. And many still aren’t. Hopefully Wolitzer’s novel can help fix this.
Michael T. Fournier is the author of Swing State and Hidden Wheel (both novels on three Rooms Press) and Double Nickels on the Dime (33 1/3). He's a regular contributor to Razorcake, and his writing has appeared in Entropy, Oxford American, Pitchfork, Vice, Maudlin House and more. Updates are regular at michaeltfournier.org.