Book Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Female Persuasion.JPGDuring my last semester in college, as an English major, I did an independent study regarding creative nonfiction about motherhood. I researched and wrote about the ways in which women, in particular mothers, represent themselves through memoir writing. Books…magazine articles…blog posts such as mine.

That was 2005.

Three years later, Meg Wolitzer published the novel “The Ten-Year Nap,” a fictional account about some of the topics I had explored as an undergraduate. I read it, and I remember really appreciating her witty, on-point observations about everyday life. I felt the same way about “The Interestings,” which came out in 2013. The stories themselves—”The Ten-Year Nap,” “The Interestings” and now “The Female Persuasion”—are…well, interesting.

(An example of a that-sounds-right Wolitzer observation from “The Female Persuasion”: “the international symbol of female food: yogurt,” page 259).

Meg Wolitzer writes grand, sweeping stories that span years, decades even, featuring flashbacks and flash forwards, underlined with plot twists that are at times startling, at times delightful, and always engaging. She is an ambitious writer; she is a timely writer. However, her storytelling—and I mean this literally, her telling of the story—can get lost in her far-reaching, detail-heavy narration, as I fear it did at times in “The Female Persuasion,” which unfolds across 450 pages, multiple characters, and places as varied as New England, Las Vegas and Manila (yes, the Philippines).

[Meg Wolitzer] is an ambitious writer; she is a timely writer. However, her storytelling…can get lost in her far-reaching, detail-heavy narration, as I fear it did at times in “The Female Persuasion…”

Still, “The Female Persuasion” is the quintessential book-club read for this year, 2018, following the horrific news about Harvey Weinstein (and too many other men in power); #MeToo and Time’s Up; and TIME magazine’s naming The Silence Breakers as their reigning Person of the Year. The copy I bought came, in fact, with an official-looking gold-colored Barnes & Noble Book Club Exclusive Edition sticker on the front. And certainly, unarguably, with “The Female Persuasion,” Meg Wolitzer gives us a piece of literature that is both well-thought-out and thought-provoking.

Through the various characters’ perspectives (straight, gay, male, female, powerful, powerless) and the stories they live out, Wolitzer explores gender and power against the backdrop of an evolving women’s movement. She assesses (objectively, I think) the compromises that people (men and women) make once they achieve power, and along the way. An excellent moment of this: Greer, a vegetarian, hides her aversion to meat from Faith Frank, her feminist mentor, when Faith grills steak for Greer and their other colleagues. Greer explicitly reveals she doesn’t want to disappoint Faith, and implicitly (we gather) wants to stay close and get closer to this powerful woman. “‘Yum,’ Greer said” (page 176), swallowing the steak.

Wolitzer also takes a look at the ethical shades of gray that organizations find themselves navigating once they grow from grassroots to mainstream (in this story, that would be Faith’s scrappy, early-’70s feminist magazine, Bloomer, compared to her present-day women’s foundation, Loci).

However, on the topic of characters… The main character, Greer Kadetsy, felt a bit boilerplate to me: self-important though meek (at first), idealistic yet impressionable. Greer reminded me, in some ways, of the title character from Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” Like Wolitzer, Tom Wolfe is (was) another writer I have long admired and read (and even had the pleasure of meeting once, at an event in Richmond, Va.).

Now, Greer and Charlotte are different characters. But their coming-of-age stories share some similar settings (a college campus) and circumstances (sexual assault at said campus) experienced through the lens of a young woman who is white, heterosexual and aspirational.

I felt much more originality and energy from Wolitzer with her supporting characters of Zee Eisenstat, Greer’s activist friend who self-identifies as queer, and Cory Pinto, Greer’s first-generation-American, high-school boyfriend. When I “met” Zee and Cory in this novel, I thought, Wow, I’d love to know these people in real life. They were unique, multidimensional, compelling.

Greer, on the other hand, read like someone I had met before.

When I “met” Zee and Cory in this novel, I thought, Wow, I’d love to know these people in real life.

During a conversation with her partner, Noelle, about halfway into the book, Zee listens as Noelle shares her take regarding what amounts to the themes of “The Female Persuasion”: “‘But sometimes the way to get involved is to just live your life and be yourself with all your values intact. And by just being you, it’ll happen. Maybe not in big ways, but it’ll happen'” (page 256). This philosophy resonates with me, personally, and by the end of the story, after Greer’s fallout with Faith, I wondered if Wolitzer places some credence in it too.

By the time I arrived at page 310, I jotted a note in the margins: “lots of telling, not showing.” It’s an old writing guideline, right? Show, don’t tell. From that perspective, I feel as though Wolitzer does a lot of telling, especially around page 310, where the reader finds him/herself in the middle of Faith’s flashback, which began back on page 266 as Faith was being chauffeured to a massage. Wolitzer provides us with so…much…information and so…many…details, but rarely within these 50 pages of text did I feel as though I were there, in the scene, in the story, with Faith.

Instead, I felt (during pages 266 through 310, as well as in other places) as though I were reading a character’s biography, or the aggressively anti-CliffsNotes version of a major historic event. Perhaps, though, I’m simply a product of my generation, with an affinity for “conversations” that consist mostly of emojis, and an appreciation for lean narration. Perhaps.

It’s an old writing guideline, right? Show, don’t tell. From that perspective, I feel as though Wolitzer does a lot of telling…

Overall, “The Female Persuasion” is timely, ambitious storytelling. Undeniably.

It is witty. (Another example: “If you ever wanted to get an accurate picture of who you were, Greer thought years later, all you had to do was look at everything you’d Googled over the past twenty-four hours,” page 72.)

It has some captivating character development. Zee and Cory are beautiful supporting characters, and I think Zee (or even Cory, ironically) may have functioned more powerfully than Greer as the main character.

(If you read this book, Cory’s explanation of his video-game idea, SoulFinder, on page 420 is amazing, and worth waiting for: “‘When a person dies we say that we lost them,’ said Cory…It feels that way to me; like they’ve got to be somewhere, right? They can’t just be nowhere.'”)

Lastly, “The Female Persuasion” strives mightily to challenge us to ask new questions about big ideas. Here’s a passage I found particularly profound and moving, spoken by Greer’s mother, whom Greer (initially) views as a failure, about Cory: “‘…I’m not the one who’s been working at a feminist foundation. 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?'” (page 377).

Witty. Captivating character development. New questions about big ideas. Yes, “The Female Persuasion” by Meg Wolitzer is a good read.

Does it live up to all the hype? I don’t know.

I can’t shake the feeling I’ve met Greer Kadetsky before.

Photo credit: Riverhead Books

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

 

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Look, Mom: I Wrote a Story Too

I shut the top lid and press “on.” The old coffeemaker grumbles awake and begins brewing several cups of my favorite blend.

From the adjoining breakfast nook, my daughters are bickering—something about whose turn it is, or isn’t, to use a certain stamp. I poke my head around the corner. “Share, girls,” I say.

My older daughter crosses her arms. “I have been sharing,” Grace says. “She hasn’t.”

Rather than pleading her case, my younger daughter says, “Mommy! Hold me!”

I give Anna a hug and then settle her back beside her sister. “Girls,” I say, “there are a million things you can do in here. Color. Play with your Shopkins. Finish your cereal, maybe. Do something while I pack up your book bags.”

My 3-year-old frowns. “I don’t want to go to school today,” she says.

“You’ll have fun once you get there,” I reply.

She shakes her head. “No, I won’t. I want to stay with you, Mom.”

“I don’t,” Grace announces, for the record. “I want to go to school.”

My coffee better be ready soon. “Look,” I say. “Everyone has to go to school today, because Mom needs to write and Dad is working too. So…” I gesture to the crayons, construction paper and myriad amusements covering the table. “Please do something while I get your things ready for school.”

Anna sighs, but picks up a crayon. I return to the kitchen.

Story Image

For all I have to do to secure my writing time—the two different school drop-offs, snack and lunch preparation beforehand, the pleading (and, occasionally, yelling) for the girls to get along and remember to brush their teeth and, of course, find their shoes—I wonder if it’s even worth it. Especially considering that the majority of the writing I do now—essays submitted to literary magazines (and not always accepted), short fiction that I self-publish on Amazon, every post on my website here—is creative, a.k.a. not that lucrative.

The coffeemaker sputters to a stop. I pour myself a cup. Outside the window above the kitchen sink, the sun rises. The thought flickers across my mind, again: Is this even worth it? Or should I do something different?

“Mom. Look, Mom.”

Anna’s voice draws me back in. I turn; I look.

She’s smiling, proud. And she’s holding up a piece of blue construction paper, marked here and there with lines of crayon. “I wrote a story too,” she tells me.

I take in a breath. Then I smile; I kneel down. I look at the paper. “Wow,” I say. “You did.”

“Just like Mom,” Anna says. She drops her story at my feet, then runs off.

I pick up the paper—my daughter’s story. She wrote it because I write stories. She sees something of value, something worth mimicking, in storytelling. Just like when we visited the local firehouse for a field trip, and the girls spent the rest of the day pretending to be firefighters.

I hang her story up on the refrigerator, with Grace’s soccer-picture magnet from last season.

I could never not write creative nonfiction, or short fiction. I simply love telling stories, both those that are true and those I make up. It makes me happy when someone reads something I wrote, and lets me know it moved them in some way—made them laugh, or encouraged them during a difficult time.

And during difficult times in my life, writing has been healing to me. Either in helping me to make sense of my journey and to find meaning within the pain, or in escaping, for a moment, to a world of my own making. Often it’s easier to give fictional characters’ “Aha!” moments, rather than to stumble across our own.

I pick up the paper—my daughter’s story. She wrote it because I write stories. She sees something of value, something worth mimicking, in storytelling.

Originally, I submitted a version of this essay to a literary magazine I really like and read. Yesterday, the editor let me know it wasn’t a good fit for them right now. During dinner that evening, I shared with the girls what she said.

“What was your story called?” Grace asked.

I told her: “Look, Mom: I Wrote a Story Too.” (Based on a true story, as all good stories are. 😉 )

Grace smiled sympathetically. “Awww, that sounds cool, Mom.”

I smiled back. “Thanks, honey.”

Eventually, every creative type has a come-to-Jesus conversation with him- or herself. Is what I’m doing worthwhile?

I’ve been thinking about this, and the answer is—like many of the answers I arrive at—yes and no. Pros and cons for everything, shades of gray everywhere. But for sure, more “no” than “yes,” friends.

I want to contribute more financially meaningfully to our family’s life. E-book royalties and token payments for magazine pieces, while holding out hope for a big break à la Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney, don’t go very far toward summer camps and retirement savings.

Worth and value can be subjective, and are, but bottom lines don’t lie.

I’m excited, then, to dedicate more time to seeking out the kind of contract work I’ve done before, proposal editing and copywriting. I’m good at that stuff; I can do it. Fingers crossed, I can do it from home.

I’ll still do the creative writing I love, just more on the back burner.

Yet…Anna’s story still hangs on the fridge.

Kids…love…stories. We grow up, and we still…love…stories. We tell stories every day—from our quickest conversations with our neighbors, to our end-of-day heart-to-hearts with the ones who know and love us best.

I believe there is unity, and understanding, and love in storytelling. Deep down, we all might believe that.

That’s why I’ll never give up on it.

In the meantime…if you know anyone who could use some editing or writing help, send ‘em my way. 😉 ❤

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

My First Reading

My First ReadingA few weekends ago, my church hosted its annual talent show. Beforehand, the coordinator asked if I would read one of my essays to help round out the program. I wasn’t sure if the audience would be interested in hearing anything I wrote—after all, others were scheduled to play the piano, dance and do comedy routines, all more entertaining and “talent-y,” in my opinion—but I said yes, I’d be happy to help.

That evening, I read my recent post, “The Secret Lives of Moms.” There were some chuckles from the crowd, which made me happy. I love when a story I tell evokes an emotion in the reader (or listener), especially laughter.

My friend Liz kindly took this picture of me up on stage. At a couple of points during my reading, Anna ambled up the steps to give me a hug and a kiss of encouragement. I so appreciated her sweet, 3-year-old affection.

I believe this was the first reading in my writing career. I was nervous, but I enjoyed sharing my work with the group gathered there that evening. I’m not sure when my second reading may come, but this first one will hold a special place in my heart.

Photo credit: Liz Cartagena

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Tell Me About Me: Stories Kids (and Grownups) Love to Hear

Both our daughters love when Stanton or I read to them. Lately, Anna especially has been requesting more and more time with books. She’ll pull one book after another off a bookshelf…stack them all into a tall, teetering pile…and then call, “Mom! Dad! MOMDADMOMDAD!”

We’ll hurry over. Anna will point to the pile. “Read all my favorite stories?” She’ll add a smile; we’ll sigh.

One afternoon, after reading for forty-five minutes or so, I felt my eyelids begin to droop. Many parents have found that reading to their children helps lull them, the kids, to sleep. For me, reading to Anna lulls me to sleep. I closed my eyes. “How about,” I suggested, “I tell you a story?” Telling a story—something I could do half-asleep.

Happily, Anna agreed. “Tell me about me!”

Kids love to hear stories about themselves, don’t they? Actually, we all do. So I began telling Anna the story of when she was born.

The story of when you were born—everyone’s personal favorite.

“I was so happy to see you,” I said.

“Mom gave me kisses,” Anna added. “Smooch, smooch!”

I’ve told her this story before, many times, and she loves it as much as I do.

“Yes, I kissed you so much,” I confirmed. “Then I gave you some milk…”

“Then I had scrambled eggs…”

My eyes blinked open. “What?” I started laughing. I had never said that, and obviously, Anna had not eaten any solid protein minutes after birth.

Anna frowned at me. “Stop laughing, Mom.”

“Honey, that’s not true. I did not give you scrambled eggs.”

“Yes, you did!” Now Anna was yelling. “I had scrambled eggs! I had milk and scrambled eggs!”

I could tell we weren’t going to be able to have a rational conversation. (This may be one of the hardest parts of parenting small children: dealing with wildly irrational behavior.) “If you say so,” I said.

Anna nodded. “Milk and scrambled eggs,” she said. “And Grace sang to me…”

I picked up with the story. “Yes, Grace sang ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ to you when she met you…”

The story of when you were born—everyone’s personal favorite.

In telling a story, have you ever had to change it? To finesse the facts, so to speak, in order to move the conversation forward, as I did with Anna? Or, as my husband would say, lie?

(I don’t like to say lie…)

Storytellers—especially when they answer to “Mom” or “Dad”—are not court reporters, or accountants, or any other kind of official record keepers. And in family life particularly, we narrate these scenes of shared history not to develop a personal Encyclopedia Britannica, but to revisit and remember milestones and more everyday moments alike—all the occasions that make a family just that: a family.

The upcoming holidays will be prime time for family storytelling. At dinner tables, or on couches in front of TV’s showing a football game or animated movie, or wherever else we might gather with our loved ones…we’ll tell (actually, we’ll re-tell) the memory of, “That time when…”

If we’re lucky, we have lots of “times when.” Even if we wouldn’t have considered ourselves lucky at the time…every time was an experience. Every time became a story. And taught us something about life, or love, or surviving. Our “times when.”

Handprints 11-15-17

What stories do you re-tell holiday after holiday, year after year, so much so that everyone knows the punch line (but wants to listen anyway)? That feeling of being part of a history, of being known, is, simply, awesome. And more often than not, it makes any holiday stress worth it.

For those of us who celebrate Friendsgivings, or help serve holiday meals at soup kitchens, or spend the holidays in less traditional ways…storytelling probably appears on these menus too. We can’t help but make connections, or make sense of our lives, through stories. “To be a person is to have a story to tell,” said author Isak Dinesen.

From when I was growing up, and even now, I remember telling a story and then glancing at my sister, who’s seven years younger, to add, “You weren’t born yet.” Today, Grace does the same thing with Anna. We’ll be talking about Grace’s first birthday party, or first time flying on a plane, and Grace will inform Anna (not always graciously), “You weren’t born yet.”

To have not been born yet—to have missed out on that story in your family’s history—it’s the plight of youngest siblings everywhere, isn’t it?

Anna, as I’ve shared, has a flexible sense of history, and reality. So, bless her heart, she’ll often retort to Grace, “Yes, I was! I was born yet!”

(Luckily for our youngest siblings, they’re often the hardiest of us all.)

The truth is, the stories we tell—the way we remember things—they’re all imperfect. The details can get fuzzy in our memories…so we do the best we can in relaying those facts. And things don’t always start when we think they do, or end when we stop talking…stop telling the story.

Beginnings and endings can be just as permeable as our memories. Just as arbitrary. “There is no real ending,” according to Frank Herbert—“just the place where you stop the story.”

That feeling of being part of a history, of being known, is, simply, awesome.

What matters, I think, are the people. The people you were there with when the story unfolded in real time. The people you’re telling the story to now—the people you’re sharing the memory with.

When those people are the same—when you’ve been together, and stuck it out, since way back when—you’re lucky, friends. You’re lucky to have had family or friends along for so much of your journey: shotgun riders to your stories. And one day, you’ll be glad they’re there to help you remember the punch lines, and color in any details that you missed.

The people in the stories are what matter. Family. Friends, both old and new. People who passed through—people whom we miss, maybe—but to whom we feel gratitude for the wisdom they left us.

We shouldn’t stretch the truth too much, in the name of a good story. We should try to keep the facts straight. Anyway, a good story can stand on its own legs.

One day, I will tell Anna there were no scrambled eggs in her delivery room.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Check Out My New E-book, Grace Notes!

grace-notes-cover-1-1-17Confession: I’m not a morning person. Maybe you aren’t either. Or maybe you are, but you could use another boost of energy as you sip your favorite blend from the “World’s Best Mom” mug your preschooler hand-painted last week.

This is the purpose of “Grace Notes: Start Your Day on a Positive Note.” “Grace Notes” is my new e-book, and I hope you’ll check it out!

Part creative nonfiction, part personal growth, “Grace Notes” brings together some of my most-viewed recent blog posts, each with a message of positive energy. I hope that these pieces give you the momentum you need to start your day with a hearty, hope-filled, “Yes!” Here’s to a truly “Happy” New Year, friends.

Read My New E-book, THIS IS JUST A STORY

This Is Just a Story Cover ImageUnrealized dreams. A family secret. The fine line between fact and fiction. “This Is Just a Story” by Melissa Leddy explores these themes in a short fiction narrative that’s part beach read and part pop-culture commentary.

Friends, I am so excited to share that my newest story is now published and available for you to enjoy!

This is the fourth e-book I’ve published through Amazon. I’ve been writing (and rewriting!) “This Is Just a Story” for about two years. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

“This Is Just a Story” takes about one hour to read—it’s the perfect companion as you’re taking a break at your favorite coffee shop, waiting for a doctor’s appointment or ending a long day with a good book and glass of wine.

Please let me know what you think! 🙂