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.