A novel that more or less opens with an act of uninvited groping at a college frat party is probably fated to be received as a “#MeToo book,” or a “timely” book about “our moment.” Some readers will be tempted to comb through the book to assess the correctness of its politics or the precise wave of its feminism. As one white woman who feels overrepresented in popular culture put it, “a novel sifting through the small failures (and huge successes) of a prominent young white feminist hardly feels like a major statement about the movement. In 2018, aren’t there more vital, surprising and layered stories to tell?”
This critique is anticipated by Wolitzer’s new book, The Female Persuasion, in a way that feels unfussed rather than defensive. A leitmotif of the novel is a fictional blog called Fem Fatale, which embraces “a radical critique of racism, sexism, capitalism, and homophobia.” Faith Frank, the Gloria Steinem stand-in who presides serenely over Wolitzer’s book, made her name editing a feminist magazine called Bloomer, one Fem Fatale dismisses as the province of the “pep talk to straight white middle-class women.” When Frank arrives at Ryland College, scene of the aforementioned groping and alma mater of Greer Kadetsky, its victim and the novel’s heroine, she is “seen as someone from the past, who was often spoken of with admiration. … She was like a pilot light that burned continuously, comfortingly.”
There is something of the pilot light about this novel, or its author. Like Faith Frank, Wolitzer seems to preside serenely over her powers, demonstrating a grasp of pacing and characterization that feels simultaneously God-given and earned over years of hard work, just as Faith Frank arrives at her position over years of hustling and a good amount of congenital charisma.
If we try too hard to parse the precise tenor of feminism embodied by the book, we risk missing a note of gentle satire, and indeed its critiques of its own milieu. For one, the novel seems pitch-perfect on the type of careerism that has been foisted upon college graduates after 2008—a combination of class privilege that assumes all work should be rewarding and a genuine anxiety about how to navigate professional life after the collapse of the global financial market. Greer is drawn to Faith Frank’s magazine because “during the day she would essentially be paid to be a feminist, and at night she could work on her own writing.” Her boyfriend, Cory, beloved eldest son of working-class Portuguese immigrants, attends Princeton and schemes with classmates to launch a microfinance startup after graduation. The economic downtown throws a wrench in their plans (“because of the economy our dads are feeling less generous,” one of his partners tells him), so instead they prepare to go into the world and “earn a shitload of money” to use later. Cory meets with the consultant headhunters ubiquitous at Princeton, wondering if they were “thinking of him as Vaguely Ethnic Scholarship Male, Exhibit A.” Either way, he gets the job and goes to Manila to make PowerPoint decks and party until a family tragedy brings him back to the orbit of his upbringing. There he takes on his mother’s work cleaning houses.
And we have Greer’s college friend Zee, a young queer woman and sometime activist who watches with surprise as the retiring, bookish Greer ends up with a job at Loci, Faith Frank’s hedge fund–backed women’s empowerment foundation. Zee, meanwhile, slogs through a paralegal job that is the inheritance of her parents, both judges. On Greer’s first day of work at Loci, Zee presents her with a letter. “I stayed up really late and made one of those lists in my head that you’re supposed to make so that you know what you should do with your life,” she tells her friend. What does this exercise yield? She tells Greer: “I want to be able to come in and do something real, wherever I work. Something that I’m really energized about.” The upshot of this epiphany is the letter, which Greer is supposed to give to Faith Frank, her boss, on her first day of work. What’s in the letter? “I explained to her who I am and why I want to be part of what she’s doing. I did the best I could. I warned her of my minimal writing skills. … And then I gave her the Zee Eisenstat saga.” This move, with its combined chutzpah, naïveté, and obliviousness, is a perfect blunder from the entitled but well-meaning millennial playbook. The letter never reaches its intended recipient and serves as a kind of Chekhov’s gun in the novel.
Dubious choices and their consequences drive the action of The Female Persuasion. Greer Kadetsky, Ryland alumna, had been accepted into Yale along with her boyfriend, Cory, but her parents, a wholesaler of nutritional bars and a children’s clown who spend most of the novel smoking weed, failed to furnish the financial aid information that would make it possible for her to matriculate. When she begs her father to call the school and try to rectify the mistake, he shrugs. “ ‘The bureaucracy of it all; it’s not for me.’ He looked helplessly at Greer. ‘It’s just nothing I could do comfortably.’ ” It’s one of the most enraging moments in a novel where everyone has a bad moment or two. Worse, even, than the groping that opens the book, it’s a literal crime of the patriarchy.
If Wolitzer is astute on the white-collar world of millennials, she is just as canny about the gross 20th-century marriage of do-goodery with corporate razzle-dazzle. First there are the Loci summits, which start off featuring “the astronaut, the naval commander, the hip-hop artist, the poet whose collection about poverty in America had just won an important prize” and slowly diminish in seriousness—the last one we read about includes an impassioned speech by “the Australian heroine from Gravitus 2: The Awakening,” whose star-making moment is when “two enormous wrecking balls swung through the window of the skyscraper office … instantly killing the victims.” (These summits are the novelistic corollary to Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal, excerpted here.) When Greer tells Cory about a Loci promotional video featuring “girls in burqas and saris and kilts and rags, swinging satchels, riding shaky thin bicycles, heading down sunbaked dirt roads toward distant, low school buildings,” it’s so vivid to him—and to anyone who has seen such a montage—that he wonders whether it was a product of his consulting company Armitage & Rist. The White Savior industrial complex is alive at Loci, and culminates in a bungled operation to “save,” and then mentor, a group of trafficked women in Ecuador.
More dire still is the catastrophe that ensues when corporatist bullshit and millennial enthusiasm invade the educational system; Zee’s consolation job is with Teach for Reach, a clear analogue of Teach for America, which places her in the disastrous “Learning Octagon™” charter school in the South Side of Chicago “after the two-and-a-half-week lightning round of prep in their training center.” Zee, clueless millennial, will learn that being an adult means that “things couldn’t necessarily be ‘gotten out of’ ” the way her father the judge once dispatched Zee’s college roommate with body odor simply by placing a call. Zee will be demoralized by the teaching job but, like many privileged millennials before her, will find her own professional trajectory at the expense of disenfranchised youth. But Wolitzer is kind; Zee becomes a trauma counselor, and though she uses the experience to make meaning for herself, the net external good of her profession is also indisputable. Greer, meanwhile, writes a Lean In–style book called Outside Voices that races to the top of the best-seller list even while Donald Trump wins the presidency.
The Female Persuasion is a genuine pleasure to read, and it feels confident without being complacent. I believe the novel would accede its representational shortcomings—characters of color play supporting roles; the most vividly underserved student in the 93 percent black South Side is, curiously, white; the real struggles that drive the message of Fem Fatale are written as a kind of chorus, even a punchline, rather than seriously addressed (not to mention the women in Ecuador, reduced to whatever the opposite of a deus ex machina is). The novel is gentle rather than biting, but its satirizing of summit-based feminism is a politics; its sympathy for young people told to make meaning in their lives with, in many cases, no guidance whatsoever is a politics. It doesn’t have a message, necessarily, but Loci’s glittering summits had messages, and so did the slide decks of Armitage & Rist, and they were so much bullshit.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer. Riverhead Books.