Tuesday, June 12, 2018
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer is published by Chatto & Windus in the UK and Riverhead Books in the US
The dynamics of a female mentoring relationship are at the heart of Meg Wolitzer’s witty and perceptive novel
Where are we right now? With feminism and all that? There was the vote. We got the vote, which was lovely. Then there was work, and the pill, and sexual liberation, which was all great, and today there’s #MeToo, and Beyoncé, and something else – something like a sinking feeling: a realisation that these might have been a series of battles won, rather than the war promised.
Meg Wolitzer’s 11th novel sympathetically satirises this complicated landscape of contemporary feminism, while also pressing knowingly against these bruises. It’s 2006, and Greer Kadetsky is at her first college party when a frat boy reaches into her top and twists her breast, hard. This small violence ignites her political awakening, but it’s meeting second-wave feminist icon Faith Frank, author of such books as The Female Persuasion (and, in recent years, less influential sequels including, oh God, The Email Persuasion), a woman who’s “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem in fame”, that gives her earnest ambition some focus.
Faith hands her an embossed business card, and Greer holds on to it as “a reminder not to stay hot-faced and tiny-voiced”. Four years later, Greer calls the number and gets a job at the new feminist nonprofit Faith has founded, with backing from a questionable venture capitalist. Her desk is a vast white door, repurposed from a building where secret suffrage meetings had taken place. The foundation is called Loci, and it will host conferences as well as fund “special projects” to provide help for women around the world.
Wolitzer spikes these feminist conferences with the most delicate pin – Loci’s meetings evolve into expensive symposiums where celebrities make puns about balls to rapturous applause. These will surely be familiar to readers attuned to the very modern disconnect of today’s feminist conferences, where fancy ladies pay a fortune to listen to speeches about poverty, raising a glass of prosecco to the plights of women before sighing off home with a cupcake, a tote bag and the slightly bloated feeling of having done all they can. “Naturally,” Wolitzer writes of Loci, “people were writing things on Twitter like #whiteladyfeminism and #richladies, and the hashtag that for some reason irritated Faith most, #fingersandwichfeminism.” Manicurists are laid on for ticket holders, along with a feminist psychic. Greer is tasked with writing speeches for the disenfranchised, the voiceless.
Except, just as real life for Greer is beginning, her boyfriend Cory’s life swerves off road when a family death sends him home, and he must sacrifice his burgeoning career to care for his mother, taking over her job cleaning houses. Adults now, their lives diverging, every time Greer sees Cory she feels a pain “as strong as a flare-up of a chronic illness”. Despite the fact that (as Greer’s stoner mum points out) what Cory’s doing looks an awful lot like feminism.
But the central relationship is between mentor and mentee in this, a novel where the pacing is almost orchestral, from the perceptive, crushing details of teenage love to whole lives summarised in a scattering of anecdotes about desire. If, because of its political prescience, this book is read as the “MeToo novel”, then friction between Greer and Faith is inevitable. Today old and young feminists are being pitted against one another over issues such as victimhood, or automatically believing a person who says they’ve been abused, or even the question of what a woman is. Which is why it feels slightly surprising that, here, the defining fight between the two is over something as seemingly passive as Faith’s choice to ignore ethical negligence on one of their special projects, the rescue of a group of trafficked women in Ecuador. Greer, however, despite quitting Loci (Wolitzer’s characters, written with an aching sort of kindness, are so committed and idealistic in their quest to do what’s right it makes the reader vaguely despise herself), continues to idolise Faith herself.
Wolitzer has a knack of spreading time like it’s butter. The effect is oddly dizzying – having sat with this story for the equivalent of 50 years, the reader finally looks up from the page with the disconcerting realisation she knows even the most minor character better than her own son. Suddenly we’ve lapped ourselves, arriving at a party to celebrate Greer’s bestselling Lean In-type book, Outside Voices (a too-neat reference to her first conversation with Faith). It’s midway through the Trump administration or, as Wolitzer describes it, “the big terribleness”, and Greer, now married with a child, is planning to launch her own foundation. While Faith’s breakthrough book taught women to utilise their gentle femininity to make change, Greer’s teaches them how to speak for themselves. Both have found fame, fans and power. There is a mirroring across the ages. But also an anxiety to their success. Men “always get to set the terms… they just come in and set them”, Greer complains. “They don’t ask, they just do it… I don’t want to keep repeating this forever. I don’t want to keep having to live in the buildings they make.” In a building across town, Faith still runs Loci, but from a smaller office – her suffrage door desk has had to have a few inches shaved off the top.
This novel might have benefited from similar carpentry, but despite that, it is warm and witty, and necessary. Unlike a women’s summit, nobody will come away from this novel feeling either tipsy or empowered. There are no free keyrings. Instead, it asks us to consider the state of contemporary feminism and the ways we use pedestals. We leave Greer in 2019, questioning the power of her bestseller. “You could use your outside voice and scream your head off, but sometimes it didn’t seem as if the screaming was doing anything at all.”
With affection and generosity, Wolitzer exposes the limits of power through a handful of well-meant lives and she leaves us uneasy. The sense that we may have smashed a glass ceiling, but now are standing in the shards, discreetly bleeding.