The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer;
In Praise of Difficult Women, by Karen Karbo
Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Female Persuasion, is dedicated to eight women, several of them famous writers: Nora Ephron, Mary Gordon, and Hilma Wolitzer (who also happens to be her mother), to name three. The dedication is a hint, along with the title, that the book might have something to do with women and power, and, in fact, it does. That’s a good thing, of course—who doesn’t love women and power?—but combine this not-exactly-“lite” subject matter with the book’s considerable heft (at 456 pages, enough to boost a toddler to a table), and suddenly you might get a hunch that this is a book you would like to have read instead of one you actually want to read.
Disregard that hunch.
In trademark Meg Wolitzer style, the book is both gloriously astute and spew-your-coffee funny.
For one thing, in trademark Meg Wolitzer style, the book is both gloriously astute and spew-your-coffee funny. Watching her peers get ready to go out on a Friday night, new college freshman Greer Kadetsky, the book’s main character, notes “the boys aerosolizing themselves with a body spray called Stadium, which seemed to be half pine sap, half A.1. sauce.” Of a loser guy who assaults women, it’s said that “His flat, fair hair looked like a circle of lawn that that had been trapped and left to die under a kiddie pool.” Also, Greer’s semi-hapless, former hippie mother now works as a (literal) library clown. I laugh even typing that.
Elevated by this immaculate writing, Persuasion serves up the stories of four intertwined characters. We meet Greer, a shy, bookish teen from western Massachusetts who, with the help of a Gloria Steinem-like mentor, matures into a moral, confident, dedicated worker for a feminist speakers bureau; her college friend Zee Eisenstat, a Scarsdale, New York-raised lesbian who gets woke when she becomes a 9th grade teacher at a school for low-income students in Chicago; Cory Pinto, Greer’s tall, intellectually gifted, childhood-turned-adult boyfriend, the son of warm, loving Portuguese immigrants; and Faith Frank, Greer’s aforementioned mentor and the middle-aged star of the book, with her trademark high suede boots, her “iconic” yet “approachable” manner, and her dedicated loyalty to feminism of a brand that, in this moment of #MeToo and “intersectionality,” is now firmly Second Wave.
This is a book about good, smart people trying to do good and be better, but also realizing, sadly, that idealism has its limits.
Greer meets Faith just weeks into college (and shortly into the book), when the latter comes to Greer’s college to speak. They share a moment first at the Q&A, and then in the ladies’ room afterwards (“The irony of this, [Greer] thought: Faith Frank having to use a ladies’ room, submitting to the word ladies even now, into the twenty-first century.”), and these encounters become the impetus for much of the rest of the book. We follow the characters through a decade or so, during which Greer, Zee, and Cory grow up and Faith remains on the older end of middle-age, though for a while there’s a flashback to her as a young mother and budding ‘70s-era feminist, working on a feminist magazine called Bloomer.
There’s no one main plot to this novel. “I don’t think plot has ever been my middle name,” Wolitzer told an interviewer for GoodReads, adding, “I am very character-based.”
Instead, the book explores an assortment of contemporary topics and themes, both about women—sexual assault on college campus, the insertion of corporations into feminism and education, underprivileged girls becoming teenage mothers—and in general: the comforts and imperfections of family; the way a single event can both launch your life or derail you; how young adults grow into themselves and find their mojo. This is a book about good, smart people trying to do good and be better, but also realizing, sadly, that idealism has its limits; that in the real world, as the T-shirt reminds us, Shit Happens, and fallout has to be dealt with.
Karen Karbo’s beautifully bitchy new collection of profiles of “difficult women” is a perfect nonfiction companion to Wolitzer’s novel.
If this makes The Female Persuasion sound depressing, it’s decidedly not, despite one tragic plot twist that had me in tears. Ultimately, in exploring the occasional cons and considerable pros of friendship, love, and mentorship, the novel made me want to email a couple of my younger millennial friends as well as sit down again with one of my own mentors, an older woman who, now in her early eighties, is still one of the most brilliant thinkers I know. This is the power of a good book: it makes you think, and it can drive you to action. This is also the power, and beauty, of being here in midlife: sandwiched between the young and the elderly, and able—if we’re lucky—to both learn from and give back to both.
If you’re looking for the perfect nonfiction companion volume to Wolitzer’s novel, not to mention an equally fun and inspiring read, check out Karen Karbo’s beautifully bitchy new collection In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines who Dared to Break the Rules. With a foreward by Cheryl Strayed and an intro by Karbo about what it means to be a “difficult woman” (hint: it’s definitely not a bad thing), the book, adorned by pretty, feminine illustrations, features short, witty, even juicy chapters about 29 recent and contemporary tough female luminaries—from Amy Poehler to JK Rowling, Ruth Bader Ginsberg to Shonda Rhimes, Lena Dunham to (yes) Gloria Steinem to Billie Jean King. Tackling themes from adultery to weight-loss, work-life balance to the power of speaking truth not just to power but to everyone in our lives, this book is a history lesson that goes down like cotton candy: pink, sweet, and fun as hell. Don’t miss it.