The Female Persuasion
by Meg Wolitzer
Published April 2018
So this book came to my attention through an ad on Facebook for Barnes & Noble’s first official book club meeting. I tossed around the idea of going – I haven’t had good experiences with book clubs (nor bad ones, just – ambivalent experiences) – but we wound up at a Barnes & Noble on Sunday, because we were bored, so I decided to snag the book and read it. And then I went to Book Club on Wednesday! We had a small turnout at my Barnes & Noble – only four of us, including the employee leading the discussion. But after seeing a couple photos of larger turnouts, I’m glad for it – I wasn’t afraid to speak up in the small group. I’m a pretty shy introvert, a bigger group would have led to me being pretty quiet.
I feel like I was more intrigued by our book club members than the book! S., who led the group, was a natural at it, and really got us talking. I.R. opened the meeting with “I want you guys to change my mind about this book” but wouldn’t tell us her original opinion of it! And T, who was the oldest of us, brought a completely different viewpoint to the discussion, which was invaluable. (I’m pretty sure IR and S, like me, are millennials.) At the end of the discussion, T revealed she has a Ph.D. in Sociology, specialized in Gender and Sexuality, and she’s writing a book! We all agreed we wish the Book Club was monthly instead of quarterly, so S. is going to talk to her bosses and see if we can’t do a monthly book club at our location, which would be AWESOME. She also said Barnes & Noble was hiring and encouraged us to apply, and – not gonna lie – that was tempting. It’s a bus ride and a short walk away, though, and while my health and energy levels are improving drastically, I’m not sure they’re quite up to holding down a job yet. Not and get anything done around the house.
Anyway. On to the book! The Female Persuasion was billed as a feminist novel, and in some ways it is, but we all agreed it’s not REALLY about feminism. The main character, Greer, works for a feminist foundation, but you could have changed what the foundation’s purpose was, or made her work for a corporation, and the essence of the book would have been exactly the same. It was only tangentially about feminism. It was about women supporting each other, though, and the mentor relationship between an older woman and a younger woman, so in some ways, yes. If I was asked to make a list of books about feminism, though, it certainly wouldn’t make the cut.
All of the characters have some major flaws. Greer is selfish, and doesn’t understand when things don’t go according to plan. Cory’s life gets entirely derailed by a tragedy he couldn’t prevent, but in some ways he lets the derailment happen. If he’d really wanted what he said he wanted (and perhaps he didn’t) he could have fixed his trajectory. Zee is a little brash and headstrong, but the most likable character in the book. Faith – oh, Faith. Faith is the older feminist mentor who turns out to be far more jaded than expected.
I have lots of conflicts about Faith. She is one of those feminists who doesn’t seem to care for individual women – she can’t even remember most of the women who credit her with changing their lives – but she keeps her eyes on the big picture. And as I brought up in book club, the movement does need people who see the big picture. Those people are important – but they still need certain principles that I think Faith lacks.
IR mentioned that Cory was a good foil to all the female characters in the book, and he needed his flaws, because otherwise he would be the perfect feminist boyfriend. And no one is perfect.
We were all a little disappointed with the ending; it felt like Wolitzer skipped a whole section of the story. How did Greer get from point A to point B? (Well, really, it’s more like the book covers Points A, B, C, and E. And skips D.)
I think one of my favorite quotes from the book (I misattributed it to Faith at the book club, it turns out it came from Greer) was the one about being given permission:
“I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be. Many of you here in this room…..had someone like that, didn’t you? Someone who gave you permission. Someone who saw you and heard you. Heard your voice.”
I think that really sums up mentorship, in some ways. Women are often still socialized to not trust their own instincts, to lean on outside opinions for validation. (I know I was.) To be given permission and encouragement to trust yourself can be a life-changing event.
I really enjoyed this book. I saw bits of myself in all four characters – Faith’s practicality, Greer’s impressionability, Zee’s idealism, and even a little of Cory’s foggy despair and lack of ambition. I wouldn’t call it a feminist classic. But it was a good book.
From the cover of The Female Persuasion:
Sometimes the person you admire most recognizes something unusual in you and draws it out, opening a door to a bigger, electrifying world.
Greer Kadetsky is a college freshman when she meets the woman who will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others. Hearing Faith speak for the first time, in a crowded campus chapel, Greer feels her inner world light up. She and Cory, her high school boyfriend, have both been hardworking and ambitious, jokingly referred to as “twin rocket ships,” headed up and up and up. Yet for so long Greer has been full of longing, in search of a purpose she can’t quite name. And then, astonishingly, Faith invites her to make something out of her new sense of awakening. Over time, Faith leads Greer along the most exciting and rewarding path of her life, as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory, and the future she’d always imagined. As Cory’s path, too, is altered in ways that feel beyond his control, both of them are asked to reckon with what they really want. What does it mean to be powerful? How do people measure their impact upon the world, and upon one another? Does all of this look different for men than it does for women?
With humor, wisdom, and profound intelligence, Meg Wolitzer weaves insights about power and influence, ego and loyalty, womanhood and ambition into a moving story that looks at the romantic ideals we pursue deep into adulthood: ideals relating not just to whom we want to be with, but who we want to be.