The prolific Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, “The Female Persuasion,” begins with college freshman Greer Kadetsky meeting the famous feminist Faith Frank when the latter comes to the former’s campus to give a talk. During the Q&A session, Greer mentions that she and some other girls have recently been assaulted by a fellow student who, when reported, was given only a slap on the wrist. Afterwards, Greer and her friend Zee, who’s the one who told Greer about Faith Frank in the first place, encounter Faith in the restroom; Faith gives Greer her business card, which Greer doesn’t use until she’s job hunting a few years later. She ends up landing a position at Faith’s new feminist foundation in NYC, financed by the ethically questionable venture capitalist Emmett Shrader. Greer’s boyfriend since high school, Cory (who went to Princeton while Greer went to a no-name school after her parents failed to fill out the financial aid paperwork for Yale), gets a job as a consultant in Manila, so they have to keep maintaining a long-distance relationship.
Zee wants Greer to give Faith a letter asking if she can work for the foundation too, but Greer confesses to Faith at a happy hour that she doesn’t want Zee to work there because she basically doesn’t want to share the experience, and does not give Faith the letter. Greer, who’s always had trouble expressing herself, then gets promoted to writing speeches for women who have had difficult experiences to give at foundation-sponsored conferences. Things go well until Cory’s eight-year-old brother Alby dies after getting hit by a car his mother was driving, prompting his father to leave the family to return to Portugal, and his mother to have a mental breakdown. Cory quits his lucrative job and moves home to take care of her, even cleaning the houses she used to, and eventually he ends things with Greer when she can’t understand the extent to which he’s rearranged his life. Zee ends up moving to Chicago, and when one of her underage and underprivileged students gives birth at school, forges a relationship with her coworker Noelle and discovers a calling working with trauma patients.
A few years later, the foundation gets less and less funding approved for projects that actually help women, and Faith, sensing morale is low, insists on a project to rescue and mentor girls who were victims of sex trafficking in Ecuador. When one of the rescued girls comes to speak at a conference, Greer, in addition to writing the girl’s speech, actually gives the keynote at the conference, her first time speaking publicly. It goes moderately well, but then Greer learns that the project was a sham–the girls were rescued, but no mentorship program was ever set up for them, which means that a lot of what she wrote in the girl’s conference speech and her own was not true. When she confronts Faith Frank about what she’s learned, Faith acknowledges that it’s bad but has no intention of exposing it because it will endanger the foundation’s ability to help women in the future. When Greer cannot accept this logic and quits, Faith throws in Greer’s face that she never gave her Zee’s letter, apparently trying to make the point that Greer has also hurt other women and has no right to moral high ground, a move that shocks Greer and shakes her conception of her longtime role model. In telling Zee how she lost her job, she ends up confessing to Zee that she lied about having given Faith her letter, which takes Zee some time to forgive her for.
A few years later, Greer has become a bestselling author of a book called Outside Voices about women needing to learn to speak up for themselves. She’s gotten back together with Cory–whose mother eventually recovered, and who’s written a video game about finding the souls of loved ones who have died–and they have a daughter. Greer thinks about encouraging their bright babysitter Kay in the way that Faith encouraged her and so many other women. She writes an imaginary letter to Faith in her head acknowledging that Faith’s calling her out on her own bad behavior led to her actually confessing it to Zee when she wouldn’t have otherwise. The End.
One aspect about the writing that stood out in this book was the amount of exposition, amounts that might have seemed excessive if it weren’t for the pleasure and specificity of the details. Chapters are told through different characters’ points of view; Greer gets the most chapters, but then we also get Cory, Zee, Faith, and Emmett (Faith and Emmett each only get one; an outline with a chapter breakdown is at the very bottom). Wolitzer manages to hang whole lives on what is in some ways a fairly skimpy hat rack of a plot, but the hat rack is strong enough to support them. That hat-rack plot in a nutshell would be Greer working at Faith’s foundation, not giving Faith Zee’s letter when she said she would, and Faith throwing that in her face when Greer quits after discovering that the foundation has engaged in fraudulent activity. Boiling the plot down to the skeleton of these events, getting Zee’s perspective in the story seems understandable, since her whole life trajectory is impacted (and we seem to be shown that it’s actually for the best that Greer never gave Faith that letter because it enabled Zee to find her true calling, and her wife), but getting Cory’s in this context is less so. Even getting Emmett’s perspective makes more sense than getting Cory’s, since Emmett is the one who essentially starts the foundation. Cory and the development of Alby’s death actually has little bearing on the novel’s main events, and in that sense it’s essentially a useless appendage, plot-wise. Greer ends up missing the foundation’s first big summit because of it, but this itself has no long-term consequences on anything. Still, Wolitzer more or less gets away with including this technically unnecessary storyline because of its level of detail and emotional rawness. (Perhaps one could argue that Cory’s life trajectory ultimately having little direct impact on Greer’s–it seems they would have ended up married whether Alby had died or not; his death just delayed it–is a statement about how relationships don’t have to compromise female independence.)
The level of detail and the richness of the exposition is pulled off via lush prose, with sentences like:
Zee thought of Cory Pinto’s little brother—gone. She thought of the faces of everyone she knew, trembling in the gelatin of their own temporariness.
Throughout her life, intermittently fearing her parents’ eventual deaths, the only positive aspect about that inevitability was that finally there would be no one on earth who would say to her, “Would it kill you to wear a skirt?”
And so it went, conversations with Cory on a different continent while Greer leaned across a sticky, shellacked skate-rental counter.
A lot of the content that we get in the exposition seems to reinforce feminist themes rather than plot, like when Cory is in high school and flips over a sign some guys are holding up to rate Greer so it reads 9 instead of 6, or how we end up seeing that Cory’s moves with Greer in the bedroom were derived from watching porn. Because of the lush prose and themes but skimpy plot, my general reading experience was that while I compulsively devoured the sentences along the way, I was ultimately left somewhat unsatisfied. Part of this might also be due to how the retrospective narration seemed to set up a more significant climax than what the climax actually turns out to be. Near the beginning we’re told:
But what she knew for sure, eventually, was that meeting Faith Frank was the thrilling beginning of everything. It would be a very long time before the unspeakable end.
I take the “unspeakable end” to refer to Greer’s falling out with Faith when she quits. This climax takes a couple of turns: Greer has to grapple with the ethical complexity of trying to do good in the world, the “weighing,” as Faith calls it: per Faith, it would not be good to out the foundation’s fraud because then it would prevent the foundation from being able to do good in the future. (That the scene of this discussion takes place while Faith is in a salon being groomed to look different from how she really looks is a nice touch; and a previous scene where the vegetarian Greer eats meat at a foundation gathering because she doesn’t want to be contrarian also foreshadows how figuratively the foundation is force-feeding her something unsavory.) When Greer can’t accept Faith’s ethical logic and quits, Faith feels the need to knock her off her moral high horse by throwing Greer’s own bad feminism in her face: never giving her Zee’s letter (though for me it stretches credulity more than a little bit that Faith even remembers the existence of this letter). Another turn comes when, later, Greer realizes she never would have admitted the truth to Zee if Faith hadn’t done this, so in a way Faith was actually helping her with this seemingly petty gesture. Faith actually helping Greer with this move rather than hurting her is reinforced by something Faith says to Emmett after Greer has quit:
“Showing an interest is only one part,” she said. “You also take them under your wing, if that’s what they seem to want. But then there’s another part, which is that eventually you let them go. Fling! You fling them away. Because otherwise they think that they can’t manage on their own. Sometimes you fling them too hard. You have to be careful.”
Apparently Faith didn’t fling Greer too hard, though, because–ta-da!–she goes on to write a bestselling feminist book of her own, seeming to fill a very similar mold to Faith’s in being an inspiration to young women who’s also criticized for narrow and privileged views. Greer essentially turning into Faith felt disappointing, since based on Greer’s experience with Faith I would think she’d try to update the model.
The other disappointing aspect of the resolution with the bestselling book is that it seems like a missed opportunity. Greer apparently never has any contact with Faith again after she quits, and we’re told the foundation was never outed for the fraud with the mentorship program. But it’s mentioned early on that Greer actually describes her experiences with Faith in her own book, that her book’s first scene is one of the actual book’s early scenes, meeting Faith in the bathroom. It would seem, then, that Greer’s book would be the perfect platform to challenge the old model, to out the foundation for its fraud, or for Greer to at least grapple with the decision of whether or not to do so, but we don’t get any of that; instead she just ends up perpetuating the model. In the final chapter she has some interactions with her young babysitter Kay, who doesn’t think Greer’s book is really doing enough, but Greer just thinks Kay’s feminist opinions are, unbeknownst to her, recycled ones:
[Kay] offered these opinions as if they were entirely new; the pleasure and excitement in her voice were stirring. Greer could have said to her, “Yes, I know all about this. Faith said that women said the same thing back in the seventies,” but that wouldn’t have been kind.
Greer is also frequently just annoying, especially when she’s talking about the foundation:
“That’s what everyone was talking about at the first Loci summit,” Greer had said recently on the phone [with Zee] when the subject came up. “The meaning and uses of power.”
“The summit you missed, because of Cory’s brother.”
“Yeah. But everyone who was there—the rest of our team—said that it was clear that it’s a topic we’re going to return to, because no one can get enough of it. It excites everyone. Power! Even the word is powerful.”
This abrasiveness largely seems to be intentional though, depicting the foundation as inherently problematic. (It’s also a good reason why it was a good idea to not have the book be solely in Greer’s point of view, even though she is the linchpin of the plot.)
Another interesting detail is the return of serial assaulter Darren Tinzler at the end when Zee sends Greer to the link of a video of him; Greer then recalls when Faith told her in the Q&A session at the talk where Greer first saw her that it wasn’t worth trying to fight him; now here he is all these years later still at large, which Greer takes as a sign that Faith’s brand of compromising is problematic. She and Zee debate what the solution is, and the idea of another foundation comes up, one that would have to be different than Loci, but this is as far as they get. As some critics say, good books explore complexity by raising more questions than answers, but to me it still felt as if this wasn’t enough, mainly because in general the conclusion felt like Greer has sold out.
Reading this book that elevated exposition over plot made me think about Claire Vaye Watkins’ talk “On Pandering,” and how we frequently write to and for men, and how maybe the emphasis on plot as the most important aspect of a novel is part of this type of pandering. Wolitzer’s depicting the richness of life not solely in the service of plot might be a mode more of the female persuasion.
Ch. 1 Greer’s POV: Meeting Faith Frank at the talk she gives when Greer is a freshman at Ryland
Ch. 2 Greer’s POV: The rest of college, backstory about her lackadaisical parents and Cory being her academic rival since elementary school and getting together when they were seniors (and his genius little brother Alby), imagining a post-college future with Cory
Ch. 3 Cory’s POV: backstory about growing up with immigrant parents and getting with Greer; his getting into Princeton and Greer getting into Yale but learning her parents messed up the financial aid forms; occasionally cheating on Greer in college but feeling bad about it; getting his consulting job
Ch. 4 Greer’s POV: getting the job at the foundation (after almost interviewing at Faith’s former publication Bloomer the day it folded), Zee asking her to give Faith a letter asking for a job
Ch. 5 Greer’s POV: Not giving Faith Zee’s letter, then a work happy hour where she confesses to Faith about not giving it to her, lying to Zee, getting promoted, going to a weekend gathering at Faith’s house and eats meat even though she’s a vegetarian, then has a ton of missed calls when she regains cell reception
Ch. 6 Cory’s POV: Trying to get home from Manila after his father called with the news that his mother ran over his brother in the driveway and killed him; exposition about his life in the wealthy district of a poor place; then at home with his family and Greer, except for his father, who left for Lisbon; his mom has a mental breakdown so he stays to take care of her and starts cleaning the house she used to; he does heroin with his cousin and grows more distant from Greer until they break up
Ch. 7 Zee’s POV: Working at the terrible law firm and living at home; her letter to Faith Frank; exposition about discovering her sexuality; moving to Chicago for a teaching job at an underprivileged school, where she has a fraught relationship with the guidance counselor Noelle until they bond after having to unexpectedly deliver a student’s baby together
Ch. 8 Faith’s POV: Four years have passed. Taking a phone call from her son before getting a Chinese massage for stress relief; exposition about growing up with strict parents then fleeing to become a cocktail waitress, where her friend got pregnant and was treated horribly when she got an abortion, then getting involved with the women’s rights movement, starting Bloomer, seeing Emmett Shrader in a meeting after seeing him once briefly in Vegas, sleeping with him before finding out he was married; during the massage she decides to let Greer do the keynote at the next conference since her morale’s low because the foundation hasn’t been doing many special projects to actually help women recently, so Faith has gotten Emmett to agree to a new one.
Ch. 9 Greer’s POV: Greer giving speech at conference along with one of the women the foundation rescued from sex work and is supposed to be mentoring; a few days later a former employee of Shrader tells her the mentoring program actually never happened; she tells Faith, who wants to keep it under wraps, so Greer quits, and Faith bashes her for never giving her Zee’s letter
Ch. 10 Zee’s POV: She’s found her calling in trauma response; Greer comes to visit after she quits and tells her she lied about giving Faith her letter, which Zee can’t immediately forgive her for
Ch. 11 Greer’s POV: Greer goes home after Chicago, sees her mother’s clown show for the first time, and sees Cory, who’s working at a computer store
Ch. 12 Emmett’s POV: Faith meeting with Emmett to confront him about what happened with the nonexistent mentorship program; exposition about his rich wife he doesn’t find that interesting but whose money he used to start his venture capital firm; his attraction to Faith; his wife leaving him and his starting the foundation; at the meeting after seeing all the gifts grateful women have given her he declares that he’s done everything wrong and should have been with her
Ch. 13 Cory’s POV: Developing his video game SoulFinder based on how he felt after losing Alby; his brief fling with a childhood acquaintance; his mom recovering and starting to clean houses again and decides to move
Ch. 14 Greer’s POV: Cory stays with Greer in NYC visiting for his video game investor.
Ch. 15 Greer’s POV: Several years have passed. A party celebrating her book Outside Voices being a bestseller for a year. Now she’s married to Cory and they have a daughter. At home after the party Zee sends her a video of the guy who assaulted her in college still being abusive to women. She imagines telling Faith, whom she put first in her book’s acknowledgments, about her life.