Meg Wolitzer. The Female Persuasion. Riverhead Books, 2018. $28.00.
In her 2018 novel The Female Persuasion, best-selling writer Meg Wolitzer offers a story mixing coming-of-age, loss of a family member, and women’s struggle to find what the novel calls an “outside voice”—a voice to make themselves heard in a patriarchal society. The novel shares its title with the character Faith Frank’s early feminist work, which propels the book. It follows three individuals from the next generation—Greer Kadetsky, her college best friend Zee, and her boyfriend Cory—as they lead separate yet interconnected lives in the early-and-mid 2000s.
Incidents on their college campus lead the naive Greer and her new, activist friend Zee to a lecture by Faith Frank, a feminist figure from the 1960s whose writings and publications are now considered dated and essentialist. “I meet young women who say, ‘I’m not a feminist but…,’” Faith says at the beginning of her speech. Her key points about equal pay and equal sexual pleasure incite both Zee and Greer to action. Zee’s eventual career as a crisis manager in low-income parts of Chicago and Greer’s move to New York for Faith’s women’s foundation are both results of their initial encounter with her.
Zee, Greer and Faith are three well-meaning women who struggle with issues revolving around what it truly means to call oneself a feminist. Through unexpected challenges and betrayals by men and more often by women, they are forced to decide at what cost they should uphold their ideals. Women’s relationships to other women dominate The Female Persuasion. “She’s probably one of those women who hates women,” Zee muses early in the novel, evoking feminist texts that emphasize the importance of female-female relationships, such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. The novel relentlessly questions all of the relationships in the novel. By the conclusion, not all of them survive.
The men in the novel face their own problems. The sudden loss of Cory’s little brother Alby sends him back home to tend to his devastated mother at the cost of a promising corporate career. And although he never calls himself a feminist, his relationship with the women around him lead Greer’s mother to muse: “But here’s this person who gave up his plans when his family fell apart. He moves back in with his mother and takes care of her. Oh, and he cleans his own house and the ones she used to clean. I don’t know. But I feel like Cory is kind of a big feminist, right?” There’s also Emmett Shrader, head of ShraderCapital, which funds Faith Frank’s women’s foundation to strengthen his company’s reputation after suspect business deals. Emmett slowly begins to question his own motives, asking himself whether he believes in the organization or simply hopes to rekindle a romance with the aging feminist icon.
Wolitzer’s descriptions are refreshingly vivid and evocative. For example, on Greer filing a complaint against a male student: “her letters were still bubbled and fat and juvenile, creating a disconnect between the content of what she was writing and the way she wrote it. Who would even take it seriously?” This passage, which capture’s Greer’s anxiety, is typical of the novel. Wolitzer also proves up to the task of exploring feminism. In a smooth, matter-of-fact style that echoes Faith’s way of speaking, she sheds light on the many different people who fall under the term. The novel constantly questions various brands of feminism and their pitfalls, and it is scattered with serious, poignant moments about topics such as campus sexual assault. The Female Persuasion proves particularly timely in the era of #metoo and #timesup.
-Dierdra M. Shupe
Meg Wolitzer is the New York Times bestselling author of The Interestings, The Uncoupling, The Ten-Year Nap, The Position, and The Wife. Her new novel, The Female Persuasion, has been named a most-anticipated book of the year by Time Magazine, Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, and more. She was the guest editor of The Best American Short Stories 2017, and lives in New York City.
Deirdra Shupe is a 3rd year PhD student in Renaissance Literature and serves as a graduate teaching assistant at Florida State University. She is originally from Hillsville, Virginia, and enjoys reading every book she can.