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Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion review - the many faces of feminism | reviews, news & interviews

Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion review - the many faces of feminism

Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion review - the many faces of feminism

Novel about sisterhood, mentorship and finding an outside voice

Meg Wolitzer: measured and generous© Nina Subin

Meg Wolitzer’s 10th novel has been hailed as a breakthrough, a feminist blockbuster, an embodiment of the zeitgeist. (Nicole Kidman has bought the film rights, which goes to show.) But in all her fiction, she deftly explores motherhood, career, misogyny, feminism, the domestic detail within the bigger picture, with a very American, affectionate wit – she’s particularly good at awkward teenagers – though sometimes there’s a feeling of skill at the expense of substance. Wolitzer's previous (too long) book The Interestings deals with the successes and failures over decades of a group of New York friends who meet at a socialist summer camp; the one before that, The Uncoupling (written a few years before Gwyneth Paltrow brought the word to our attention) transposes the Lysistrata comedy to a New Jersey town.

The Female Persuasion, perhaps her most substantial and serious book, is hardly a #MeToo sensation that gives voice to the divisions within feminism today - not surprisingly, as it was written before the Harvey Weinstein debacle. It’s measured, generous, a sometimes long-winded exploration of what ambition and integrity mean, homing in on four very convincing characters, one of them a man who, through tragic circumstance, becomes perhaps the biggest feminist of them all.

It starts in 2006, with Greer Kadetsky, “compact and determined like a flying squirrel” with a blue streak in her hair, but much less of a firebrand than Germaine, starting her first term at a second-rate college in Connecticut (she got into Yale but her flaky parents didn’t fill out the financial aid forms properly so she couldn’t go). In her first week, she is casually assaulted at a party by a frat boy. He makes a habit of this with other students until eventually the college disciplines him, but extremely lightly: he’s allowed to stay as long as he agrees to three counselling sessions.

Greer, unlike her less academic, activist friend Zee, is apolitical, prone to saying “I don’t know,” and averse to speaking up in public. And unlike boys at school, she finds it hard to use her “outside voice”. But she manages to speak to Faith Frank, the glamorous, suede-booted, second-wave feminist (“a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem”), editor of the outmoded Bloomer magazine and author of 1980s bestseller The Female Persuasion (recent spin-off about women and technology: The Email Persuasion) who comes to address the college. Frank’s feminism is seen as outdated, too focused on issues that affect privileged women, Zee tells Greer, but still, she’s iconic, approachable.

In fact it’s her voice that’s important – she’s not a deep thinker but people always want to listen to her. Greer is empowered by Faith Frank, and their encounter, though nothing momentous about the frat boy’s slap on the wrist is said, sparks off a new confidence and awareness in Greer and encourages her “not to stay hot-faced and tiny-voiced”. Like Frank, Wolitzer doesn't say anything ground-breaking about gender or power dynamics, but there are lovely, new observations: the word girl, rather than woman, she writes, would always be in play for Zee and Greer, "a useful, durable word, signaling a confident state you would never entirely want to leave". And Greer's boyfriend Cory muses that women claim the province of softness for themselves while men cast it off, "but really, maybe you wished you had it yourself".

After Greer graduates she works for Frank, who’s in her late sixties but still “unequivocally sexy”, at her new feminist foundation, backed by a shady venture capitalist (and old lover of Frank’s; he is now in a "cold conch shell" of a marriage), which aims to connect women speakers with audiences but becomes celeb-heavy, corporate and compromised. By the end, after the election, with “the big terribleness” which no one has seen coming (Wolitzer wrote most of the book expecting Clinton to win), and misogyny storming the world, Greer has moved on and written a bestseller – a “positive-leaning manifesto” - herself.

Though Greer’s relationship with Frank and the foundation is given a central position, it’s less vivid than other parts of the novel. Where Wolitzer excels is in the depth and specificity of her characters’ back-stories. Greer has a lonely childhood with her half-assed stoner parents; her mother is a library clown, her father sells nutrition bars. She makes dinner for them, which they take up to their room while she eats alone with a book. Zee, in wealthy Scarsdale, has parents who are both judges. They jog through the landscape “like twin steeds” after their Vitamix smoothies – “Dick, flaxseed or no?” Zee hears her mother ask each morning. And Cory is brilliantly drawn, as are his very funny experiments with porn when a teenager which lead to him using an “unfamiliar voice” when having sex with Greer. “’Why are you talking like that?’ she said, confused. ‘I was just saying what I felt,’ he said, but now he looked as if he’d been caught in something.” Politics, with its outside voice, is drawn with broad brush-strokes: it’s the inside voices that matter more to Wolitzer, and the novel succeeds because of them.

 

Where Wolitzer excels is in the depth and specificity of her characters’ back-stories

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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