Faith was one of those people, Greer had started to see, who was seductive to almost everyone.-Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion
I read The Female Persuasion out of curiosity. It’s been on a table in the bookstore for a while, and I wanted to know if it was worth recommending. I don’t think it is.
From the early pages, the book appears to be about a young woman from Massachussetts, Greer, and the influence of a prominent feminist named Faith Frank on her life. Wolitzer had several tics that annoyed me in this book, and the first was her tendency to move forward to the future. Sentences like this are frequent in the book: “Above them, Darren Tinzler strode down the wide, majestic stairway. He hadn’t been identified as Darren Tinzler yet, hadn’t been given significance.” This tactic can be useful occasionally, to emphasize the irony of a moment in the present if a character will change dramatically or hilariously. I’m sure I’ve read sentences like this before and enjoyed them. They were constant in Wolitzer’s book, though, and they took away from the coming-of-age structure of the book. I knew from the first few chapters in that Greer would split unamicably from Faith and that she would one day be famous. The references to Greer’s fame annoyed me because they’re presented as a given. The novel shows her fall, when she quits working for Faith and has to start her life over, and the last chapter flashes forward to Greer on a successful book tour, with enough money to buy an apartment in New York. I wasn’t as moved by the change at the end because I’d known it was going to happen. If Wolitzer had kept us with Greer in real time during the novel, the start of her life after Faith would have felt more frightening, and the news of her successful book would be more rewarding.
The Female Persuasion tracks Greer’s life from the start of college, where she meets Faith at a lecture, through her late twenties, while she works at a foundation for women led by Faith until their aforementioned split. Wolitzer refuses to allow Greer to have any queer feelings for Faith, despite the fact that she admires Faith’s body and her appearance and felt such a strong love for Faith that the older woman is described as her reason for existing. Wolitzer goes so far to describe Greer’s feelings as “not sexual” to cover up any chance of queerness, which I thought was pretty unnecessary. Let it be heard: women have crushes on women all the time! It wouldn’t have changed the book at for this to be explicit, except that Greer’s obsession would have made a little more sense.
There are queer characters in the book. Greer’s best friend from college and afterwards, Zee, is a queer woman. She even gets a section to herself, near the end, and while I enjoyed learning about her life after college I didn’t really know why it was in this book, which was meant to be about Greer. As the book goes on, Wolitzer writes chapters about characters who make appearances in Greer’s story. Greer’s boyfriend, Cory, made sense to me as he had a chapter early on in the book and his chapters recurred. Zee’s lone section near the end confused me, as I’ve said. There was a chapter in the head of Faith Frank herself, which narrated her life and her rise to feminist activism, but didn’t, in my opinion, add much insight to her character. When I began a chapter from the point of view of Emmett Shrader, a millionaire who holds a longtime torch for Faith and who funds her women’s foundation, I felt that the book wasn’t about Greer anymore at all. The Female Persuasion tries to cover too much. If Wolitzer wanted the book to be about a range of people, the different characters’ chapters should have been split up more evenly, and the book should not have emphasized only Greer and Faith so heavily in the beginning. Every time I came across a new characters’ section I was confused, and annoyed, because I didn’t know what was going on with Greer. The structure of this book doesn’t give deep insight into any one character, and left me feeling like I’d read a bunch of short biographies.
The saving grace of this book was, surprisingly enough, the relationship between Greer and her high school sweetheart, Cory. They stay together through college and for a few years afterward. Wolitzer’s descriptions of long distance were a little painfully true, but well written. I was really compelled by Cory’s character arc. I enjoyed his chapters most of all, even though his life includes the most soap-operary sections of the plot, including murder and heroin use. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of Greer’s first months working at the women’s foundation. She’s essentially an assistant, and she’s isolated from her colleagues, and I felt more in her head during this section than in any other part of the book. Perhaps if I’d been with her instead of Cory during some of the more intense moments of the book, I’d feel closer to her. As it was, I wasn’t moved by the climax, when Greer is heartbroken by the questionable morals behind the scenes at Faith’s women’s foundation.
I wanted this book to be a better coming-of-age story. It addressed sexual harassment and the wide definitions of feminism, and it touched on intersectionality, but it was largely about idealizing an older, wealthy, white feminist. For anyone seeking a book that accurately and compellingly describes growing up in recent decades, I say keep looking—I’m looking, too.
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