It’s almost impossible to read Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, “The Female Persuasion,” and not see it as thematically inextricable from our present political moment. A story about feminist activism that directly references the current administration (if only by the moniker “the great terribleness”) clearly has no qualms about being unreservedly partisan.
Wolitzer could have sat back and rode the rising wave of frustration and political rubbernecking to success, but it would be a disservice to the power and scope of this novel to describe it as merely a sharp and persuasive political statement. Wolitzer’s real gift is her unflinching ability to depict, with both empathy and searing accuracy, the growing pains of characters lost in the wasteland of prolonged adolescence, crafting a welcome coming-of-age story for an entire generation.
“The Female Persuasion” follows the feminist awakening of Greer Kadetsky — first introduced as a desperately shy college freshman — after she is sexually harassed at a party by a male classmate. Dejected by the flippant response from the school administration, Greer is pulled into the orbit of Faith Frank, a charismatic, Gloria Steinem-esque second-wave feminist icon who offers Greer a job at her foundation after graduation. As the narrative unfurls to include the stories of Greer’s androgynous and fierce friend Zee, her sweet but tragic boyfriend Cory and the enigmatic Faith Frank herself, Wolitzer explores what it really means for the political to become deeply personal with all the gritty realities of life.
While Wolitzer’s vision of the modern feminist movement isn’t as ardently intersectional as it could be, she is clearly well versed in the entirety of the movement and sensitive to its goals. For example, Faith Frank’s “white lady feminism” is thoughtfully addressed, as are the challenges faced by Zee as a queer woman and the growing space in the movement for male feminists. Any deficiencies in Wolitzer’s handling of the political dimensions of the book are quickly counteracted by her clear-eyed ability to speak to the actual experiences of women.
In the long tradition of coming-of-age narratives which Wolitzer pulls from — think Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations” or Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” — it’s rare to find female characters like Greer, Zee and Faith who are treated with so much humanity and complexity. Even when they make terrible decisions, disappoint us or fail to reach the high bar of “likeability,” which we have come to expect from our fictional women, Wolitzer approaches them with good humor and unwavering respect. Our culture’s most cherished stereotypes for women — the drunk and “slutty” co-ed, the dragon-lady boss, the strident feminist nag — are rejected in favor of women who feel real and sympathetic, even in their imperfections.
“The Female Persuasion” also speaks powerfully to the need for community among women, particularly the need for mentorship across generations. This idea of “sisterhood” may seem a bit hokey and outdated, but Wolitzer is able to lean into its complexities. What happens when the bonds of sisterhood are violated or when mentorship turns into idolatry? How can you carve your own path, when the “sisterhood” won’t support it? Ultimately, this book is part of “the big, long story of women pouring what they had into one another” and it creates the kind of roadmap for a feminist coming-of-age long needed by the zeitgeist. With “The Female Persuasion,” Wolitzer has established herself as an essential voice and a mentor in her own right for a rising generation of young feminists.