“Above all, be the heroine of your own life, not the victim,” said the writer, reporter and filmmaker Nora Ephron in a 1996 commencement speech at her alma mater, Wellesley College. Throughout her career Ephron had mentored many younger women, including the novelist Meg Wolitzer, author, most recently, of “The Interestings,” a keenly observed epic on friendship and ambition. Ephron’s words of wisdom can now be found on everything from inspirational posters to T-shirts and they could also have been the epigraph for her mentee’s latest and most powerful novel to date, a meditation on feminism and how to do good — real good — in the world.
“The Female Persuasion” follows Greer Kadetsky as she begins college as a smart but shy student, a capable yet passive young woman who has trouble asserting herself.
(That her name echoes that of the Australian feminist Germaine Greer, who argued that men force women to be submissive in order to adhere to male fantasies, feels like no accident.) One day Greer has a political awakening when a fellow student — a frat boy of the lowest order — gets off scot-free after sexually assaulting her and a slew of other women on campus. Greer seethes with rage, but she’s not quite sure what to do with her anger. The trajectory of her life is forever changed when she meets Faith Frank, the charismatic second-wave feminist, writer and speaker, who seems to see something special in Greer. The narration tells us that Greer will one day become famous in her own right, and so we watch and wait for Greer to learn from Faith, but also to emerge as the heroine of her own life, or at least this book.
Greer finds an idol in Faith, whose approval she laps up with all the exhilaration of romantic love.
“Faith was one of those people, Greer had started to see, who was seductive to almost everyone. Seduction was a power move to Faith, and maybe even a compulsion, but it seemed to happen effortlessly, and was in the service of the greater good.” With a few winks to Gloria Steinem, Wolitzer creates a fitting back story for Faith: a former Las Vegas cocktail waitress in the 1960s, Faith became an outspoken abortion rights activist, and later a beloved speaker and author and indie magazine founder (Faith’s Bloomer Magazine was second only to Ms.) and feminist personality.
The Faith brand is still strong when Greer meets her — “It’s like being smiled at by God,” says a male colleague about the power of Faith’s esteem — if less powerful than it was in her heyday. Her charms, to both Greer and the reader, are still very much intact. Eventually Faith hires Greer for an entry level job at Loci, her brand new speaker’s bureau cum emergency aid charity, all underwritten by the founder of ShraderCapital, a venture capital firm with questionable ethics but deep pockets.
“The Female Persuasion” could be a traditional bildungsroman in which a character learns to balance cynicism with idealism as she comes of age, but there’s more to it than Greer’s story. Wolitzer’s novel directly addresses the state of feminism in a post-President Trump world — a circumstance that a director of online marketing in a book party scene refers to as “the big terribleness.” And so the novel asks the big questions: Now more than ever, what does it mean for women to help other women? How can we actually make the world a better (or slightly less terrible) place?
Of course, the “now more than ever” feeling about the importance of feminism right now, in the reactionary age of Trump and Pence, is a privilege that non-binary, non-white, non-rich, non-straight women and gender nonconforming individuals were never privy to. Wolitzer aptly acknowledges this disconnect among Faith and her ilk, versus a younger and more radical movement. Watch Wolitzer write perfectly in the tone of an intersectional feminist blog called Fem Fatale, whose tagline is “sex-positive, snark-friendly, and in-your-face, but also just a damn good read” that publishes sentences like, “‘Corporate Feminism much, Faith Frank?’” Faith also can’t help but notice the snarky yet apt Twitter hashtags she inspires: #whiteladyfeminism, #richladies, #fingersandwichfeminism. The divides between older and younger generations of radicals have always been wide, but Wolitzer’s prescience about the coming rift between gender activists in the age of #MeToo feels particularly wise.
If “The Female Persuasion” is the opus so many women want from Wolitzer — a big, fat, delicious book about feminism and the power of female mentorship — then it’s worth noting that the Faith/Greer relationship is only part of the story. Faith’s is the sort of feminism in which the end justifies the means, and so yes, much of her job at Loci involves courting rich women at fancy lunches to fund programs that will actually help women most in need. In this environment of constant compromise, Greer must figure out how to deal with the disappointment of having expected too much from your hero. Along the way, Greer’s Portuguese childhood boyfriend, Cory, and her gay college bestie, Zee, also grab a good deal of the page count. Their stories could feel like interesting but nonessential tangents if they weren’t so pointedly in opposition to Greer’s idealistic-white-girl-made-good narrative. Both Cory and Zee make a small but lasting impact in their local communities and are satisfied to be heroes to a small but meaningful few. “I think there are two kinds of feminists,” Zee says. “The famous ones, and everyone else.”
Every character Greer encounters is perfectly nuanced, except for the frat bro whose assault of Greer in college made her “woke” — later in the book we learn that he has become the owner of a revenge porn site and continues to be the worst on every level. Other than this monster, the men in Greer’s life seem to be great allies. There is no mention in Greer’s world — either in her own experience or through a whisper network — of workplace sexual harassment. Yes, she works at a feminist organization, but it’s located in the same building as a very male venture capital firm. For all that the novel obsesses about how women can undermine and betray each other, there’s seemingly a blind spot around the question of men.
That said, it’s nearly impossible to reach the end of the book without feeling optimistic. No, Greer does not lead an intersectional revolution that challenges systematic misogyny in America for good. But she does join a line of women who help others find their voices, replacing each other over and over again, just as Ephron inspired Wolitzer to constantly move forward, even in a world that pushes back violently. So here’s hoping that quotes from “The Female Persuasion” will be found on Tumblr blogs and needlepoints everywhere, inspiring a future generation to use them to create something new.
Kreizman is the creator of “Slaughterhouse 90210,” a blog and book celebrating the intersection of literature and pop culture. She’s also a writer, critic and former editorial director of Book of the Month.
Riverhead: 464 pp., $28