Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion” feels almost prescient in its exploration of gender politics, corporate corruption and, ultimately, how much is enough when it comes to personal sacrifice. Along the way, it also takes an unflinching look at the intricate nature of family, the elaborate give-and-take of friendship, and the perils of hero worship. If something positive can come from our current political climate — what Wolitzer calls “the big terribleness” — it is almost certainly this ambitious new novel.
The story’s main protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, is a shy, studious freshman attending Ryland College while her boyfriend goes to Princeton. Greer and Cory were such soaring overachievers in high school that people referred to them as “twin rocket ships,” and they had planned to go to Yale together, but Greer’s slacker parents were too stoned to fill out the financial-aid paperwork. So now Greer is left to travel her own, lesser academic trajectory, even though she and Cory remain a long-distance couple.
At Ryland, Greer’s new best friend, Zee, takes her to a stirring lecture by Faith Frank, a feminist icon, who later gives Greer a little personal life-coaching in the women’s room. From this encounter, Greer’s outlook is altered, her goals changed, her future determined. She feels her “head crack open” with what she learns, but all the reader sees is Greer having a polite chat with a nice lady in a public restroom. “Don’t be hard on yourself; don’t beat yourself up,” Faith says to Greer. “You’re quiet, but you’re also furious. . . . You’re allowed to be angry if you feel you weren’t treated fairly.” It sounds less like a feminist call to arms and more like a conversation you’d have with a sympathetic customer service representative. But from then on, Greer works to become the kind of person worthy of such a connection.
Wolitzer understands — seemingly on a cellular level — the puzzled, needy heart that beats within any teenager. She knows that to bookish girls like Greer, “the whole world appeared to be fact-based, and that had been a relief to Greer, who could dredge up facts with great ease, a magician pulling coins from any available ear.” And that frantic friendships formed during college orientation don’t last: “People who had nothing in common were briefly and emotionally joined, like the members of a jury or the survivors of a plane crash.” We see in these pages that the world is a daunting, uncertain place; high school doesn’t remotely prepare kids for it.
Greer and Cory manage to maintain their relationship, and Wolitzer writes movingly and evocatively about teenage love without ever sounding saccharine, as when they reveal their bodies “to each other for the first time like monuments being undraped at a public ceremony.” When her boyfriend confides in her his worry about his slightly crooked penis, Greer is “touched that they were discussing something that no doubt he would rather die than discuss with another person. Which meant that she wasn’t another person, really; that they were tangled together and indivisible.”
Wolitzer is also startlingly perceptive about young adulthood, or whatever that murky, unmoored time in your mid-20s is called. The novel follows Greer as she lands a job at Faith’s newly minted foundation, Loci, and the beginning of Cory’s finance career before a tragic accident calls him back to their home town. Greer’s friend Zee is struggling to grow up, too, and her chapters are some of the brightest and funniest in the novel. Less successful are the sections told by Faith and by the venture capitalist bankrolling Loci. Their voices don’t throb with the urgency of the younger characters, and the descriptions of their personal histories veer close to summation.
It’s a daunting task for any novelist to express her characters’ political views without growing pedantic, and Wolitzer doesn’t entirely avoid that trap. “I’ve noted that when people speak about feminism they take one tack or the other,” Faith says to her assembled staff in her kitchen while tossing a salad. “Our foundation has to look at all of it. We need to keep thinking about the role that economics plays. Because no matter how fair a society is, it’s still going to be women who have babies. And that sets them up for housewifery and the double day. Even in highly evolved places like Sweden and Norway, women end up doing most of the s--twork. Though they probably call it something cute — the way Ikea names all its furniture, so it sounds better. I have a chair at home named ‘Liefarne.’ ” It seems unbelievable that Faith’s hungry employees, waiting for dinner to be served, could be captivated by this speech, and “no one had the recessive, tuned-out quality that could happen when groups of people got together and drank.”
But more often the book is full of Wolitzer’s trademark wit and insight. At one point, Greer thinks, “The bad moment had fled. All you ever had to do to make a bad moment flee, was acquiesce.” It’s startling to think how true that statement is, especially for women. And frightening to consider all the unwise decisions, unsafe car rides, unwanted tequila shots and unprotected sex that have come about as a result of that acquiescence.
“The Female Persuasion” may fall short of perfection, but it’s still plenty strong enough to remind us that we can change the world, one woman at a time, even in the big terribleness.
Katherine Heiny is the author of, most recently, “Standard Deviation.” On Friday, April 6 at 7 p.m., Meg Wolitzer will be in conversation with Book World editor Ron Charles at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead. 464 pp. $28