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.

 

Last Call: Tell Me Everything

Every night, I rock my 3-year-old daughter, Anna, to sleep. Stanton thinks she’s old enough that my rocking her isn’t necessary. Just lay her down, tuck her in, he says.

It isn’t necessary, I agree, night after night. I just love doing it; she loves it too.

This isn’t efficient, he adds, as I sink into the old recliner, and Anna folds herself into me. “Squishes in to get cozy,” she calls it.

I’ll see you in about 30 minutes, I often say to Stanton. And he—he of adept efficiency—says he’ll see me then.

Sometimes we, as moms, can’t help wanting to hold our children just a little bit more. Especially if we have an older child, or older children, whose first instinct these days isn’t to reach for us, but to make requests and issue directives. Can I have a play date with Sophia? I’m tired of eating turkey-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch. Don’t walk me all the way, Mom.

At the end of the day, with my little girl, I’m unapologetically inefficient.

The recliner we have is almost seven years old. Stanton and I bought it a few months before Grace was born. It’s worn; creaky if you lean too much to the right; and the most comfortable seat in our house.

Sometimes we, as moms, can’t help wanting to hold our children just a little bit more.

The other night, I was rocking Anna. She wasn’t tired just yet. She was talking to me about Lizzy, my brother- and sister-in-law’s dog. She was saying she loved walking Lizzy, which she had done this past Thanksgiving when we were visiting them.

“Wow,” I said, surprised at her enduring memory. (I barely remember what happened yesterday.)

“Lottie and D-Daddy were there,” Anna went on. “And we walked and walked Lizzy. It was fun.”

“I’m so glad you have happy memories,” I said.

Anna nodded. “I have happy memories, Mom, but they don’t glow like in Inside Out.”

I smiled at Anna’s point of reference. “That’s OK, honey.”

Anna looked up at me with wide eyes. “There was a scary part, and Grace gave me a pillow and held my hand.”

They hadn’t watched the movie together in a while. Again, I was surprised at everything Anna remembered. “Because Grace loves you so much.”

“Yeah, I know that, Mom.” With the abundant self-confidence of a child. “Bing Bong is my favorite,” Anna added, laughing.

I laughed too. “I love all your memories.”

“But they don’t glow, Mom,” Anna reminded me. She snuggled against my chest. “And that’s what I remember.”

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As we go along in our lives, certain memories stick with us, for whatever reasons. Chance? Or maybe something scientific (a process involving synapses perhaps).

I have a clear memory of Anna, and that old recliner. Mostly clear, anyway. I’m not positive of the date, but I believe it was the day Stanton and I brought Anna home, or the day after. So Anna was three or four days old.

It was nighttime. I was in the nursery, holding Anna in the recliner. I had had a cold when I gave birth to Anna (it was February), and now she had the same cold. She could only breathe well if she was held upright; otherwise, she got congested, and coughed and sniffled. I held her upright all the time, for two weeks until she felt better. At that point, though, we were at Day 3 (or 4).

I was holding Anna against my chest, all seven pounds, eight ounces of her. Three years later, I can still almost feel her soft, newborn cheek against my chin.

Stanton walked into the nursery. He asked how I was.

I remember telling him, “I’m so happy.”

I remember that because it’s not something I say very often (which you may find surprising). I say I’m grateful all the time. Another popular self-description is frazzled. But happy—despite my glass-half-full nature, I reserve happy for moments of joy. Deep, conscious-of-something-beautiful joy.

That child was (is) my something beautiful, just like her big sister.

Stanton stayed near the door, looking at us. I remember thinking he looked oddly serious. “What?” I asked.

“I’ll take care of you and the girls,” he said.

That was encouraging to hear, considering I had just given birth to our child. Nice to know he wasn’t plotting a midnight escape, three (or four) days postpartum. 😉

My memory of that night is being happy (though exhausted), and hearing Stanton recommit that he’d stick around.

So many memories that stick with us center on people who’ve stuck with us too. Just as many are random—a motley crew of people, places, blink-and-you-would-have-missed-it moments. Walking a dog, Bing Bong, the hand of someone who loves you.

Lately, after both girls are asleep, Stanton and I have been watching Cheers reruns on Netflix. (Welcome to our cheesy life. 😉 ) Cheers may come across as unsophisticated for today’s sitcom standards (the laugh track! Rhea Perlman’s over-the-top Carla Tortelli! Coach!), but it’s sweet, classic.

I get this, Stanton said recently. A local place. People who know you, people who care.

Who wouldn’t want that? I agreed.

Although, thinking back now, some of us wouldn’t want that. Some of us may prefer living more anonymously, adventuring far and wide, footprints in the sand and memories as picturesque as postcards. I’ve been reading The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer, and I love this line from it: “There was no perfect way to live” (page 302).

So many memories that stick with us center on people who’ve stuck with us too. Just as many are random…

However each of us lives, whatever differences there may be among us, I do hope everyone has a good share of happy memories.

Crazy how our minds can speed along a train of thought, a far-reaching railroad track of time, history and memory. Books, TV shows, favorite places, milestones like the birth of a child…nighttime.

The end of the day, with dark outside and lamplight glow in, often offers us the ideal setting for honest conversation. No rush. Tired so that we don’t finesse language, but speak from the heart.

The end of the day is a last call of sorts, whether we’re toasting at a Cheers-like place, winding down the day (the adventures, or the minutiae), or snuggling a child to sleep. Tell me everything…be here next time.

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.