Meg Wolitzer‘s latest novel, The Female Persuasion, is brilliant. An intelligent and detailed story of a life – so far. Almost landing in the genre of epic, we follow Greer Kadetsky – a shy college student who is opened up when she meets Faith Frank, an icon of the women’s movement, dazzling and persuasive. Greer is bookish, wronged, loyal and smart; Faith is elegant, inspirational, dedicated and private. This is a story about female power, generational exchange, identity, and change.
First year in a college she doesn’t want to be in, finally away from her layabout parents but heartbreakingly separated from her high-school boyfriend and the ivy league school she thought she would share with him, Greer allows herself to be taken to an evening talk by one of the outsider friends she has adopted to keep the loneliness at bay. Zee is exciting, an activist, and won’t let her new friend miss the opportunity to hear Faith Frank, icon of feminism for decades, speak. In a crowded campus chapel the moment is defining, charged. Greer’s misunderstood longing starts to take shape, finds definition.
The future that Greer had imagined for herself is not the life she now leads. It is a beautiful journey that truly does not unfurl the way I expected. Greer’s boyfriend is not threatened by her new feminism; her friendship with Zee is not threatened by success. Faith Frank gives her an opportunity to channel her talent an energy into a direction that gives her the meaning she didn’t know she sought. Her ambition is directed into a purpose that she had not foreseen, but the path makes sense.
As the story evolves however, the perspectives shift away from Greer. We have chapters from her boyfriend, from Zee, from Fatih. These are less frequent, but mean there is less time with Greer. They are all characters that are introduced because of their relationship with Greer, but later develop a life and narrative independent of hers. At first I didn’t know how I felt about this diversion away from the main plot of Greer’s life, but I later came to love the essential, complementary feel. The book, and Greer’s life, is fuller because of these completely realised supporting characters. It feels necessary, and real.
It feels odd to have a book that feels so closely related to my own life – the post-GFC world that Greer graduates into is the same as my own; the complex multi-faceted identity of 21st Century feminism is the same that I engage with. Am I at an age know where I have lived enough years to make a story out of? Terrifyingly, the story ends when Greer is the same age as me, having achieved a lot more than this reader. Is this the end of a story? At 31 years old? Wow.
Sweetly, Wolitzer’s title for this novel is named after Faith’s most famous book, one that we are told came to define a generation of women. It sets up a beautiful patterning between the author and Faith, Faith and Greer. There is an intelligence and tenderness to this book where the same kind, shrewd eye is applied to men and women, straight and queer, old and young, white and hispanic. It is deeply compassionate while also being witty, suffused with sadness while engaging with larger challenges of defining yourself and your life against the backdrop of power and influence, ambition and family.