The Female Persuasion, the new novel by Meg Wolitzer, is self-consciously a zeitgeist book. It is a book about that once again fashionable concern, feminism, and about the ways women relate to each other.
But what’s most interesting about The Female Persuasion is less what its characters bring to feminism — their political motivations, their idealism, their labor — and more why they turn to it in the first place.
For the two women at the center of the novel, feminism offers not just political purpose but, more crucially, a chance to find the attention and approval they so deeply crave. It is the messy, painful emotions of this book, rendered by Wolitzer with exacting specificity, that make it so stunning, while its zeitgeisty politics are rather beside the point.
The Female Persuasion’s central relationship unites two generations of feminism
Greer is a college freshman when we meet her, resentfully attending a third-tier liberal arts college after her stoner parents neglected to fill out the financial aid forms for Yale. She’s a passive good girl struggling to establish a new identity now that she’s at college, and becoming increasingly unsure that she can coast on being “the smart one” any longer. In the past, “facts appeared before her, and then she simply articulated them,” Wolitzer writes of Greer with characteristically brutal precision, “and in this way she became known as the smartest one in her class.” Now that she’s expected to interpret and analyze her facts, though, Greer finds herself flailing.
Feminism presents itself to Greer as a possible new identity after a frat boy gropes her at a party and Greer, outraged, joins a group of women in testifying that he assaulted them. She reads a few Jezebel-like blogs and watches a Vagina Monologues-like play. And feminism cements itself in Greer’s identity when Faith Frank comes to her campus.
Faith is “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem in fame,” and the editor-in-chief of Bloomer, “the scrappier, less famous little sister to Ms. magazine.” Greer knows little about feminism in general or Faith Frank in particular, but when she sees Faith speak, she is overwhelmed by the force of Faith’s warmth and charisma.
They share a moment. Faith gives Greer her business card. And four years later, when Greer graduates, she works that connection into a job at the new feminist nonprofit Faith has founded, backed by a venture capitalist of less-than-sterling reputation.
Greer does have political convictions. She was genuinely shaken by the frat boy who assaulted her, and genuinely wants to make the world a better place for women. But Greer is a striving Becky Sharp who thinks of herself as a principled Jane Eyre: Her political ideals aren’t quite as central to her identity as she would like them to be, not nearly as central her ambition. Feminism offers Greer an outlet for her ambitions, and moreover, it satisfies her desire to be close to Faith and her enormous presence, to find a new mother after her birth mother proved herself less than satisfactory.
That’s a desire Faith understands. Faith, too, found herself joining the feminist movement of the late ’60s partially out of principled political beliefs, and partially because it gave her a platform on which she might be noticed and admired.
So as The Female Persuasion goes on, Faith and Greer circle each other, each feeding the bottomless appetite of the other: Faith giving Greer approval and a sense of identity, Greer giving Faith worshipful admiration and respect. And while their mutual quests for love and approval are sometimes productive and nourishing and exciting, they can also be destructive. Each winds up sacrificing a friend to the cause along the way, Faith with few qualms and Greer with many.
The book’s feminist politics are weak. They’re also mostly beside the point.
The Female Persuasion is at its weakest when it tries to engage seriously with the politics of feminism. It is vaguely aware that second-wave feminism is considered out of date now, but it reacts with wide-eyed astonishment to the idea that feminism should be led by anyone besides well-educated middle-class white women: Women of color appear here primarily as props to be rescued or failed, or to briefly critique white feminism and then vanish again.
The solution Greer offers to the Trump era — the “big terribleness” that falls over the concluding chapter — is a Lean In-style manifesto that exhorts women to speak with their outside voices, and it’s never quite clear whether that book’s empty platitudes speak to the emptiness of Greer’s ambitions or are meant to be read as potentially constructive and empowering. This is not a book that is particularly interested in or good at critiquing systems of power.
Where it shines is in the emotional depth of its relationships. The by turns toxic and loving bond between Greer and Faith is the heart of the novel, but Greer and Faith’s other relationships — with their betrayed friends, with their lovers — sing with the specificity of their intimacy.
Perhaps most moving is the relationship between Greer and her high school boyfriend, Cory, who like Greer is a driven and ambitious high achiever until a family tragedy sends him back home to the suburbs to care for his traumatized mother. Wolitzer, who has also written middle-grade and YA novels, has a deft touch with teen love, and it shows in the echoes of pain Greer feels every time she sees the adult Cory, “as strong as a flare-up of a chronic illness.”
It’s that sort of fraught, earnest, deeply felt emotion that powers this book, that gives it its beating heart. The politics are more or less incidental, but the ways these characters relate are profoundly moving.