“The Female Persuasion: a Novel” (Riverhead Books), by Meg Wolitzer
In the first 15 pages of Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, a college student is groped against her will, setting in motion a life devoted to female empowerment. In the next 30 pages she meets the woman who inspires her to pursue that life. And in the more than 400 remaining pages of “The Female Persuasion,” Meg Wolitzer tells a story about womanhood, ambition, ego and ideals.
If you liked the sprawling, decades-long narrative of “The Interestings,” ”The Female Persuasion” follows a similar structure, spanning a little more than a dozen years. Greer Kadetsky is the young woman in the opening chapter and the feminist icon she meets in a bathroom after a campus speech is named Faith Frank — “a couple steps down from Gloria Steinem,” as Wolitzer describes her. There’s also Frank’s benefactor and former lover, Emmett; Greer’s first love, Cory; and her best friend, Zee.
Each character gets chapters that go deep inside their heads. There’s a lot of inner monologue, sometimes to a fault. The issues are complex, certainly, but some readers may wish the characters would simply act rather than reading paragraphs about what might happen if they do. One more complaint before the good stuff — there’s too much foreshadowing. Why do we need to know at the end of chapter one that Greer herself will become famous and write a best- seller?
Wolitzer’s talent as a writer shines in lines that say more in a sentence than most writers do in paragraphs. “People’s marriages were like two-person religious cults, impossible to understand,” thinks Cory as he cleans one of the houses his grieving mother used to maintain. Or from Faith’s head as she daydreams during a massage: “You never knew when you were lifting your child for the last time; it might seem like just a regular time, when it was taking place, but later, looking back, it would turn out to have been the last.”
Wolitzer also has a fascination with food. She often sets the scene with it. In the fictional Ryland College that Greer attends because her parents didn’t correctly complete the Yale financial aid form: “Pizza would be their consolation prize: two girls alone late at night with the soft solace of warm dough.” And later, when Greer is the keynote speaker at a mentorship summit: “Drinks and canapes were circulating; slender Bellinis and gemological tuna tartare slicked with yuzu gelee.”
There’s much more to admire here as the novel ponders friendship, love and parent-child relationships. But in the end, Wolitzer’s real gift to her readers is a story that feels both timeless and very much of the zeitgeist. Her characters spend a lot of time soul-searching about a woman’s obligation to other women. “People did what they could … until they couldn’t do it anymore,” she writes. Wolitzer does plenty with this book and one can only hope that her readers — of the male and female persuasion — will keep the conversation going after the last page.
While some may credit Wolitzer for being in touch with the zeitgeist, this reviewer — a middle-aged man, to be clear — gets the impression that Wolitzer would certainly applaud the current focus on #MeToo and Time’s Up.