Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, “The Female Persuasion,” is ambitious. It follows the feminist movement from its naïve, optimistic swell in the sixties to its present incarnation: a much more complicated, uneasy movement. The novel opens as Greer Kadetsky, a college freshman, hears second-wave feminist Faith Frank speak on her college campus. Greer is captivated by Faith, who is as charismatic as she is persuasive. Greer’s life course is fundamentally altered by meeting Faith after her speech, which sets the stage for the development of their complicated mentor-mentee relationship. It is no accident that this relationship is more palpable on the page than the sexual relationship Greer has with her long-time boyfriend, Cory.
The twists and turns of the evolution of feminism are interesting, as are the intricacies of the relationship between Greer and Faith. But what is most compelling about “The Female Persuasion,” as in all of Wolitzer’s novels, is the descriptiveness in her characterization of people and the interactions between them. Consider this snippet, which suggests so clearly and succinctly the kind of child Greer is at the beginning of the novel: “Once Greer read ‘Anna Karenina’ for such a long, unbroken bout that her eyes grew strained and bloodshot, and she had to lie in bed with a washcloth over them as if she herself were a literary heroine from the past.”
“The Female Persuasion” spans some twenty years, so it is no surprise that all of its characters experience the vagaries of life. Greer and her best friend Zee move fluidly and believably in and out of deep female friendship, with its inevitable betrayals. Cory, Greer’s boyfriend, suffers a family tragedy that upends his life. Faith grows older, and her power wanes; Greer grows older, and her power waxes. The new, more complicated feminism, it appears, is more in keeping with our new, more complicated times.
Yet what lingers about this novel is not the trajectory of feminism across the decades or its plot. Instead, you should read “The Female Persuasion” because of Meg Wolitzer’s ability to craft a sentence and to depict a character, an emotion, a relationship. Read it because if you do not quite remember how your freshman year of college felt, Wolitzer will remind you when she writes, “[Greer] had been at college for seven weeks before Faith appeared. Much of that time, that excruciating buildup, had been spent absorbed in her own unhappiness, practically curating it. On Greer’s first Friday night at Ryland, from along the dormitory halls came the ambient roar of a collective social life forming, as if there were a generator somewhere deep in the building.” Read it, as Lena Dunham wrote in The New York Times, because “people — loving them, knowing them, letting them shatter and rebuild us again — are Wolitzer’s politics, and that’s something to vote for.”
Reviewer Sarah Piazza is a teacher's assistant in a 2nd grade classroom at Park Forest Elementary.