The Female Persuasion
by Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead Books 2018
What better way to start a novel exploring the pitfalls of female power than with an incident that pointedly shows the lack of it: It’s 2006 and Greer Kadetsky, a smart, “and furiously shy” college freshman, is sexually assaulted at a frat party. At first, Greer doesn’t report the incident, but after it turns out that she is not the only victim, the perpetrator is brought before the college’s disciplinary committee. The meager punishment – three mandatory counseling sessions - is met with a “strong but diffuse outcry on campus” and it awakens Greer’s desire for action. But what to do? How to react?
Together with her new best friend Zee, Greer attends the lecture of old-school feminist icon Faith Frank, determined to seek the older woman’s advice. At sixty-three, Faith is still able to dazzle the young, and Greer is enchanted by her “forceful presence”:
Greer folded, she was taken in completely, taken up, wanting more of this forever. Faith had made her little joke about loving them, but as Greer listened to Faith, what she herself felt seemed closely related to falling in love. Greer knew all about falling in love – the way discovering Cory had shaken her around, messed with her cells. This was like that, but without the physical desire. The sensation wasn’t sexual but the word love still seemed relevant here; love, which pollinated the air around Faith Frank.
With the three main characters of the novel introduced, Wolitzer proceeds to tell a layered, multigenerational story that follows the lives of these women for the next thirteen years. While Zee struggles to find a career she is passionate about, Greer lands a job in a high-powered feminist foundation, with Faith as her boss and mentor. But as exhilarating as this may sound, her work in the world of white corporate feminism, adorned with celebrities, often fills Greer with doubt:
“I’m not sure we’re doing anything, Faith,” Greer said. “I like to think we are,” she added quickly. “It’s hard to know how much we ever did, quantifiably. We don’t have a product.”
And Greer also discovers that it’s not always easy to please the powers that be. With insight and wit, Wolitzer illuminates the compromises the young woman is willing to make, starting with the small and personal, like the fact that Greer eats meat when invited to Faith’s house, despite having been a vegetarian for years:
She swallowed hard and forced herself not to cough up. The steak went down and stayed down.
“Yum,“ Greer said.
But soon enough, Greer realizes that there are bigger moral issues at stake and she comes to understand that Faith will do almost anything to keep her feminist empire afloat.
Although the story focuses on the lives of three women, the novel’s male characters are never reduced to mere sidekicks. Cory Pinto, Greer’s childhood friend and love interest, must grapple with moral issues of his own when the son of Portuguese immigrants who changed his first name from Duarte to Cory, sees his promising finance career cut short by a family tragedy. And there is Emmet Shrader, the venture capitalist who bankrolls Faith’s feminist endeavors, and whose relationships with women in general, and with Faith in particular, are complex and believable.
Running through the book is the central theme of power and its moral ambiguities, or, as Zee puts it most accurately: “how to act in the face of power”. Whether it’s the question of how to handle the power of family dynamics or the worship of the powerful that leads to the betrayal of a friend, Wolitzer tackles these issues with gusto, while never losing sight of the story she wants to tell. It would be easy to praise the novel for its timely political message, being released six months into the #metoo movement. But timeliness is never enough to make a book ‘good’. Neither are big ideas. What you need are authentic characters and a compelling story. And The Female Persuasion excels on both counts.
Britta Böhler is a German-born author and former law professor. She has published literary fiction and a series of crime novels as well as various non fiction books about real life criminal cases. Her internationally acclaimed novel about Thomas Mann (English translation: The Decision) has been translated into eight languages. She lives in Amsterdam and Cologne and she writes in German, English and Dutch. For more information: www.brittaboehler.com