Meg Wolitzer’s New Novel Takes On the Politics of Women’s Mentorship
It will be tempting for most critics to approach “The Female Persuasion” through the lens of the current political climate — perhaps nigh impossible for them not to. Meg Wolitzer’s 12th novel begins with a campus assault that leads to a protest that leads to an intergenerational feminist debate that takes a turn for the toxic. It’s as if a healthy portion of the Twittersphere were aggregated, swallowed and spit back out as the plot of a literary novel.
And who will blame these critics? The novel’s protagonist, Greer Kadetsky — who starts the book as a faceless college freshman “absorbed in her own unhappiness, practically curating it” — is the living embodiment of today’s growing number of young white women whose own processes of politicization are equally inspiring and problematic. Her budding friendship with a self-actualized queer girl named Zee Eisenstat, as well as an utterly clinical and horrific groping at a frat party, set Greer — all the while consumed with her boyfriend, who is miles away at Princeton — on the activist path.
And it is this path that leads her straight to Faith Frank, a notorious figure in the women’s empowerment movement who reads as part Gloria Steinem, part Eve Ensler, part Dame Helen Mirren. Faith’s confidence, passion and good humanitarian deeds (which she allows Greer to join in as part of her undertaking) come to define the next half-decade of Greer’s life, as her bond with Zee and her seemingly idyllic romance with said boyfriend, Cory, fracture and eventually combust.
The novel’s timeliness cannot be overstated, but it also invites a bigger question: What do we as readers, as a society, want from our fiction? Is it enough for it just to speak to the zeitgeist? Or are we also committed to words working their magic and characters growing hotter to the touch with each passing page? Of Greer’s interest in language, Wolitzer — a noted bard of middle-class malaise — writes, “All written words danced in a chain for her.” And the same could be said of the author herself, who writes in warm, specific prose that neither calls attention to itself nor ignores the mandate of the best books: to tell us things we know in ways we never thought to know them.
Of all the political threads that permeate “The Female Persuasion,” the one that interests me most is the challenge of intergenerational feminism. This reviewer must confess to having met Wolitzer, through our mutual mentor Nora Ephron, whose humanity and specificity can often be felt in Wolitzer’s work — here, particularly in the woeful characters who populate the student lounge at the fictional Ryland University, like the girl who needs help deciding whether diarrhea constitutes a medical emergency. (It is no wonder the first feature film Ephron directed, “This Is My Life,” was based on a Wolitzer novel.) This connection is a reminder of what can be nurturing, inclusive and essential about the interweaving of ideas between women of varying ages, of how feminism expands rather than shrinks, while also sometimes forgetting to make room for what doesn’t resemble itself.
But as Greer and Faith’s relationship takes on a new dimension, the skeptical sneer of the elder meets the righteous judgment of the younger. I am thinking, in particular, of a scene where Greer confronts Faith with a shocking professional revelation as Faith is having her hair colored at a high-end salon, her head covered in foils, “hooked up not with electrodes but with a conduit to youth and beauty.” It doesn’t feel like an accident that the book’s mentor is named Faith, as that is what she demands of her followers, blind and without reservation — and it’s a testament to Wolitzer’s skill that this does not come off as ham-handed. By the time Greer understands the compromises Faith has had to make to build her woman-saving empire, she’s so deeply invested that she can hardly afford to walk away. Like one who is afraid to admit her religion is a fraud, she is faced with having to keep the faith.
When this book is not examining the uniqueness of Greer and Faith’s dynamic, it is speaking to the larger issue of ambition: who has it, what curtails it and what it means to reframe it. Greer and Zee share activist leanings, but Greer’s nice-girl image of herself is tested when Zee too wants access to Faith’s world. Cory’s promising post-Ivy League life is upended and then made small by tragedy. And then there’s Faith, whose demand that the world give her the chance to be one of its conquering heroes is the definition of a certain kind of ambition — graceful, guileless and vaguely sinister. The book itself is an ambitious 456 pages, tight but inclusive, and deserves to be placed on shelves alongside such ornate modern novels beginning in college as “A Little Life,” “The Secret History” and “The Marriage Plot.”
The conversation I’d been hearing around the book before I even received my galley was about its resonance within our current political climate, one that is so focused on issues of women’s consent, control and intersectionality. It’s all there to parse, and parsed it will be. But when all is said and done, Wolitzer is an infinitely capable creator of human identities that are as real as the type on this page, and her love of her characters shines more brightly than any agenda. People — loving them, knowing them, letting them shatter and rebuild us again — are Wolitzer’s politics, and that’s something to vote for.