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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

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In Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, Greer Kadetsky is a small-town girl who is determined to do something big with her life. She is smart and works hard, yet her parents mess up her college financial aid and she can’t go to her first choice school. Her boyfriend, Cory, goes off to Princeton, and Greer goes to what is essentially her safety school. She is miserable and lonely, and she is sexually assaulted by another student. She reports it after learning it wasn’t an isolated event, testifies in a campus hearing, and is angry when nothing comes of it. Then her best friend at school, Zee, brings her to a talk by Faith Frank, a magnanimous feminist who inspires Greer to live up to her potential.

Greer meets Faith in the bathroom at the talk, speaks with her for a couple of minutes, and gets her business card. The meeting makes a lasting impression on Greer, but it is some time before Greer reaches out to Faith. Greer ends up working with Faith and rising to personal success, though at the same time her personal relationships suffer. She betrays Zee; she argues with and breaks up with, then gets back together with Cory. Both Zee and Cory are having their own struggles with family and work. Zee is having trouble fitting in at her teaching job and is trying to navigate a difficult work relationship that becomes intimate. Cory’s mother accidentally runs over Cory’s little brother Alby with her car, and Cory has to quit his job to return home and take care of her after his father leaves her. He joins her cleaning houses, uses drugs with his cousin and then on his own, and then becomes lost in Alby’s old video games.

Faith sacrifices her integrity to keep business going. This horrifies and disgusts Greer, but Faith points out that Greer, who has betrayed Zee, is not in a place to judge. Greer reveals the truth to Zee, who is hurt, and Greer returns to her hometown to try to face Cory.

Cory ends up becoming a successful video game designer, Greer a bestselling author, and they get married and have a baby. Their babysitter is a feminist who looks up to Greer. Greer feels as though the future is bright.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1811

Author: Meg Wolitzer (b. 1959)

Publisher: Riverhead Books (New York). 464 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1970s–2019

Locales: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York

Written by the best-selling American author Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion examines the state of contemporary feminism through the experiences of an idealistic young woman and her mentor.

Principal characters

Greer Kadetsky, a young woman searching for her life’s purpose after graduating from college

Faith Frank, her mentor, a second-wave feminist icon comparable to Gloria Steinem

Cory Pinto,her high school sweetheart and the son of Portuguese immigrants

Zee Eisenstat, her best friend, a young queer woman who wants to help the underprivileged

Meg Wolitzer is an American novelist with a penchant for complex female characters. More often than not, these characters are the kind of women on missions of self-discovery who get caught in the wormy landscape of societal gender expectations. This theme first became evident in Wolitzer’s 2008 book The Ten-Year Nap,which follows a group of forty-something women who, years earlier, left their high-powered jobs to become mothers. Jobless by the time their children get older and more independent, they must reckon their reality with the feminist dream of “having it all.”

Wolitzer explores similar ideas about gender in The Female Persuasion (2018), a novel that takes a broader scope to examine the state of American womanhood. In its simplest description, The Female Persuasion is about the passing of the torch from one generation of feminists to the next. It begins with the character of Greer Kadetsky, a smart, albeit deeply insecure, first-year college student who is grappling with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted. Greer wants to become the kind of feminist who dismantles the very misogynist culture that enabled the assault, but she lacks the tools and knowledge to do so. It is this desire for justice, however, that leads her to an on-campus lecture by Faith Frank, a second-wave feminist icon generally known as a slightly less famous Gloria Steinem. Greer bumps into Faith in the bathroom after the lecture, and they exchange contact information. It is a small, powerful moment that ultimately transforms Greer’s life. Not only does the interaction galvanize the young woman spiritually, but it also provides her with a life-changing professional connection. Once Greer graduates, she reaches out to the famous feminist. The mentor-protégé dynamic that subsequently develops between the two women becomes the beating heart of The Female Persuasion.Courtesy of Penguin

A large part of what makes Wolitzer’s novel so engaging is the author’s refrain from idealism. Few works of literature exist about professional women trying to change the world and lift one another up in the process; therefore, it would be tempting for any self-proclaimed feminist novelist to sugarcoat such a narrative to inspire and empower female readers. Yet Wolitzer instead infuses the many story lines that comprise The Female Persuasion with a kind of thorny realism. For example, after she graduates, Greer lands what seems like her dream job when she is hired by Faith to work at her new foundation, Loci. According to Faith, Loci will host conferences and fund projects that help women around the world. However, it is eventually revealed that the venture capitalist backing Loci has less-than-ethical motivations, and Faith is in fact willing to bend her morals to achieve her personal goals. Not only does it turn out that Greer’s job is not what she had hoped, but her hero is flawed.

Another character who demonstrates Wolitzer’s proclivity for realism is Greer’s best friend from college, Zee Eisenstat. Zee, like Greer, wants to make a difference in the world. At one point after graduation, she asks Greer to get her a job at Loci, but her friend, uncomfortable with performing such a favor as she is trying to find her place at the organization, lies and says that she had tried with no luck. Zee then moves to Chicago to work as an educator for the underprivileged at an organization called Teach and Reach. Wolitzer depicts Zee’s experience there as a dissolution of youthful idealism—the work is challenging, discouraging, and even traumatizing at times. In one especially memorable scene, a student gives birth in Zee’s classroom. In the end, Zee fails to make a substantial impact on her students’ lives and realizes that her identity as an activist has been a way for her to feel better for herself and is not actually to the benefit of others. She eventually decides the best way to help others directly is to become a trauma counselor. By Wolitzer’s careful hand, both characters end up shedding their hopeful, naïve perspectives and learn to see the world for what it is. © Nina Subin

There is no real formal structure to The Female Persuasion, and yet it never feels chaotic or meandering. Wolitzer expertly shifts between the story lines of Greer, Faith, Zee, and a young man named Cory Pinto. The time line spans between the 1970s, when Faith first has a feminist awakening, to 2019, when Greer is mostly settled into her identity as an adult. Ultimately, Greer is the connective tissue between all four story lines, as she is the only one with a unique relationship to each of the other characters. Cory is her longtime boyfriend and the lone male perspective of The Female Persuasion. Raised in a working-class immigrant family, Cory provides readers with a glimpse into a less-privileged world than the other characters. He and Greer were high school sweethearts who bonded over being the “smart kids” of their class and had plans to attend the same Ivy League university together. When Greer’s father messes up the financial aid paperwork, however, she is forced to go to a third-tier college in Connecticut while Cory attends Princeton University. This plot development is presented as a fateful twist that sends the two characters on separate, unexpected trajectories.

A large part of what makes Greer and Cory’s relationship so interesting is this fact that when the novel begins, they are almost mirror reflections of one another; however, with Wolitzer’s carefully crafted plotting, they end up in very different places in life. Though the schism that grows between them is kicked off when they end up at different colleges, what ultimately causes conflict is the disparity among their familial backgrounds. When Cory’s younger brother dies in a tragic accident, he is forced to leave his lucrative consulting job in the Philippines to come home and take care of his mother. He takes over his mother’s job as a house cleaner and essentially gives up on his dreams in the process. Greer cannot understand his commitment to his family; as Wolitzer depicts her, she may want to make the world a better place but cannot see enough outside herself to empathize with the person she loves the most.

The Female Persuasion is an enjoyable and compelling read largely because of the way in which Wolitzer blends the complex, frustrating realities of contemporary feminism with humor. As a writer, she captures both the everyday and the sociopolitical thoughts and aspirations of women in a way that is highly engaging. Wolitzer’s prose is at once sharp and warm, accessible and deeply insightful. These qualities are evident in the following passage: “Faith thought that she didn’t have to like them all, but she also recognized that they were in it together—‘it’ being the way it was for them. For women. The way it had been for centuries. The stuck place.” The novel is filled with passages just like this that appear conversational in tone but express profound messages. So much of The Female Persuasion is about the endless struggle of the feminist movement and how personal and professional obstacles impede women’s progress, generation after generation. It is a novel that explores both how far women have come and how far they have yet to go.

Reviews of The Female Persuasion have been largely positive, with most critics remarking on its timeliness. Published in April 2018, the novel arrived shortly after the beginning of the #MeToo movement, a time when women across America and the world began to share stories of victimization and demand an end to sexual harassment and assault. Many critics have applauded the way in which Wolitzer captures the paralyzing effects of assault, and also argued that the novel’s scope, intent, prose, and general literary prowess are exceptionally executed. Lena Dunham wrote for the New York Times, “The book itself is 456 ambitious pages, tight but inclusive, and deserves to be placed on shelves alongside such ornate modern novels beginning in college as ‘A Little Life,’ ‘The Secret History’ and ‘The Marriage Plot.’” Back in 2012, in an essay titled “The Second Shelf,” Wolitzer argued that novels about relationships written by men were considered to have literary merit whereas novels on the same subject written by women were not. In their reviews, most critics have noted that The Female Persuasion has broken through the gendered constraints of the publishing world to earn universally acclaimed status.

Despite this initial wave of positive critical reception, the novel also received a fair amount of backlash. Although The Female Persuasion succeeds in depicting many critical issues of modern feminism, many readers considered it myopic in its perspective, specifically in limiting its scope to the middle-class white woman’s experience. While The Female Persuasion does fails to examine the increasingly intersectional dimensions of contemporary feminism, it remains an important, well-written, captivating work that succeeds in transforming one type of feminist experience into a piece of timeless literature. The anonymous reviewer for Kirkus Reviews extolled the novel’s “can’t-put-it-down plot” and concluded that it is “the perfect feminist blockbuster for our times.” This may be its most accurate description—despite its flaws, The Female Persuasion is an entertaining powerhouse of a novel that deftly taps into the zeitgeist of the year that it was published.

Review Sources

  • Dunham, Lena. “Meg Wolitzer’s New Novel Takes on the Politics of Women’s Mentorship.” Review of The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer. The New York Times,29 Mar. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/29/books/review/review-female-persuasion-meg-wolitzer-lena-dunham.html. Accessed 24 July 2018.
  • Review of The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer. Kirkus Reviews, 6 Feb. 2018, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/meg-wolitzer/the-female-persuasion. Accessed 24 July 2018.
  • Franklin, Ruth. “The Female Persuasion Should Be a Literary Breakout. Will It Be?” Review of The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer. The Atlantic,May 2018, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/05/the-persuasive-female/556847. Accessed 24 July 2018.
  • Quinn, Annalisa. “Meg Wolitzer Asks the Big Questions in The Female Persuasion.” Review of The Female Persuasion,by Meg Wolitzer. NPR Books, National Public Radio, 3 Apr. 2018, www.npr.org/2018/04/03/598234453/meg-wolitzer-asks-the-big-questions-in-the-female-persuasion. Accessed 24 July 2018.
  • Schwartz, Alexandra. “Meg Wolitzer Rides the Feminist Waves.” Review of The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer. The New Yorker, 9 Apr. 2018, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/09/meg-wolitzer-rides-the-feminist-waves. Accessed 24 July 2018.
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