Meg Wolizter’s twelfth novel, “The Female Persuasion,” is the feminist novel of our time—well, kind of. The book’s protagonist is college freshman Greer Kadetsky, whose father’s failure to properly fill out financial aid forms for Yale forces Greer to attend the much less prestigious but fully funded, fictional Ryland University. There, she meets her soon-to-be college best friend Zee and continues her long-distance relationship with her high school boyfriend, Princeton-bound Cory. Zee encourages Greer to attend a lecture held by Faith Frank, a feminist icon who Greer comes to idolize. When Greer starts working with Faith after graduation, she starts to reevaluate her relationships, especially with Faith, as the idolization that blinded Greer to Faith’s imperfections slowly falls away. “The Female Persuasion” is about about a young (white, middle class) woman’s coming-of-age journey during and after college (not wholly original in concept, and that’s okay) but in trying to address too many of today’s problems with how women are treated, depicted, even idolized, Wolitzer spreads herself too thin.
“The Female Persuasion” is set in the late 2000s but is fully aware of the context in which it was published: 2018, a politically-charged climate that the issues in the book speak to. The novel is noticeably conscious of the systemic issues of today, from poor representation to sexual assault, and makes sure to respond. Zee is queer, and Cory is the son of Portuguese immigrants. Greer becomes an activist when she is harassed at a college party, only to learn that dozens of other women have also been harassed by the same student, whose only punishment is a slap on the wrist. She questions the status quo and the lack of change. “Things like misogyny, which seems to be everywhere, kind of wallpapering the world, you know what I mean?” Greer asks of Faith the first time they meet. “It’s still acceptable in the twenty-first century, and why is that?” However, the book starts to feel hollow, pervaded with anecdotes and details that initially speak to our time but eventually oversaturate the narrative with what feels prescriptive. Just as the scales gradually fall from Greer’s eyes regarding her relationship with Faith, the scales fall from ours as Wolitzer seems to speak through her characters instead of letting them speak for themselves.
Still, her characters are fully-realized, and this is to the novel’s benefit. “You needed to find a way to make your world dynamic, Greer knew. Sometimes you couldn’t do it yourself. Someone had to see something in you and speak to you in a way that no one else ever had,” Greer thinks to herself. For her, that someone is Faith. But Greer suffers from the age-old insecurity of not seeing herself accurately. Though she is undeniably intelligent, Greer struggles to articulate her thoughts. “It was always so much easier to turn a statement into a question, because in the end you could backpedal and say you were only asking, and then you wouldn’t have to endure the shame of being wrong,” she laments about her inability to speak in public.
Greer may not believe in herself, but it is clear that Wolitzer does. The author subtly sprinkles moments of self-awareness in Greer’s narrative, hinting at a maturity that Greer embodies but is slow to understand. Be it in random thoughts that universally resonate (”Nothing was wrong with her nose, but she knew it would always be part of her view of the world. Greer had understood it was hard to escape yourself, and to escape the way it felt being you”) or in instances that characterize Greer’s uniqueness (she choses passages to annotate in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” the passages that “‘stir [her],’ she said, without self-consciousness”) Greer is a fully realized character. Her insecurities and insights color what could easily have been a monotonous, stereotypical coming-of-age story.
But while complete, characters fail as a panacea for the novel’s gaping flaw, which Wolitzer addresses but never resolves. “Time to give another pep talk to straight white middle-class women,” a rival says about Faith magazine. Greer acknowledges the limits of the feminism Faith advocates for, and by extension, Wolitzer admits that her book cannot represent the experiences of all women—and it shouldn’t. Greer is one woman, and her circumstances are unique to her. But acknowledgement can only take one’s self-awareness so far. By the end of the novel, Wolitzer’s attempts at inclusion and representation, from Zee and Cory’s identities to Greer’s criticism of Faith’s white, cisgender feminism, feel compulsory. What initially made Greer a complex, multifaceted character—she betrays Zee by making a selfish but human and relatable decision, for example—ends up undermining Greer’s convictions and judgment of Faith. Greer may be compelling in her own right, but her hypocrisy is something the novel fails to sufficiently reconcile.
“There are two kinds of feminists. The famous ones, and everyone else. Everyone else, all the people who just quietly go and do what they’re supposed to do, and don’t get a lot of credit for it, and don’t have someone out there every day telling them they’re doing an awesome job,” Zee says when her relationship with Greer starts to devolve. The novel unknowingly, or at least unintentionally, argues that the difference between the two types of feminists lies in its inclusion (or lack thereof) of different identities and experiences. It seems like Faith is one of the famous ones; Greer’s hypocrisy makes her into one. And though the book, written with a realism that really does ring true, champions women’s voices as much as it criticizes them, it only barely scratches the surface of what feminism can look like, making the universality of its title feel more contrived than genuine.
—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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