The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

35480518Fiction – print. Riverhead Books, 2018. 454 pgs. Library Copy.

College freshman Greer Kadestsky is set adrift. Disappointed with where she has ended up for college, Greer struggles to connect with her classmates and plans to structure her life around visits to her high school boyfriend, Cory, at Princeton. As time passes (but the pain of losing out on Yale fails to fade), Greer is dragged to parties and lectures by her dorm-mate, Zee. At a party, Greer has an interaction with a frat boy that leaves her angry with the college administration’s inaction; at a lecture, Greer has an interaction with a leader in the feminist movement, Faith Frank, that leaves her inspired.

Inspired yet unwilling to reach out to Faith until graduation looms and Greer, who studied English and wants to be a writer, is still without a post-grad job. At Zee’s urging, Greer reaches out to Faith and makes an appointment to come in for an interview with the women’s lib magazine Faith leads. On the day of her interview, though, Faith announces the magazine is folding.

Greer is devastated because she and Cory have a plan: they’re going to move into a small apartment in Brooklyn and start their lives together. Greer just needs to find a job to pay for her portion of the apartment, of their shared dream.

Their plan is briefly salvaged when Faith responds to Greer’s courtesy email inviting her to apply for a new venture that Faith is leading up. The job is entry level and includes little writing, but Greer jumps at the chance to work for a non-profit (funded by a venture capitalist firm) dedicated to helping women. Finally, she and Cory will be able to follow through with plan and Greer will be able to work with a figure that sparked something inside of her one night.

But their plan is wrecked again when Cory’s brother is killed, forcing Cory to return from his job in Manila – the one he took to save up money to chase his own dreams – and step into a caregiver role. Greer is unhappy with Cory changing their plan, with the go-getter Cory deciding to go home, and the two of them end their relationship. From there, the novel diverges and follows Greer, Cory, Faith, and the others in Greer’s life as they try to find their space in the world.

A friend of a friend who follows me on social media saw a picture of this novel on my Instagram and sent me a message saying that her book club had a lot of feelings about this book. I’d underline the “a lot” portion of that statement because I’m in the same position.

I disliked this book because I disliked all the characters. Cory is the character I came the closest to liking (with Zee a distant second). He faces a horrific loss, makes incredibly grown-up decisions as a result, and finds a way to hold onto his own creativity as he struggles through grief and life working a dead-end job. Yet, his story is marginalized by that of the main character, Greer, whose viewpoint is the one we’re supposed to see Cory through.

And Greer’s viewpoint is dismissive of Cory. She expects him to snap back to who he was before the loss of his brother; she expects him to comfort her when she suffers her own setbacks despite not talking to him for years. And his reaction to that is part of the reason why I never really developed a fondness for him.

Of course, likable characters do not – and should not – be the sole criteria to decide if a book is enjoyable or has merit or any other metric for classification on GoodReads. I didn’t like the characters, but I did like the awareness of the problems associated with the feminism – often called white feminism – that Wolitzer’s characters champion.

Greer lands in a cushy position with very little effort (and an even smaller amount of tenacity), yet she is unwilling to help out a friend who requests it because she wants to keep her successes to herself. And both she and her friend have to confront this fact when her decision comes to light.

Faith, a thinly veiled reference to Gloria Steinem, focuses on speakers and events for the who’s-who of the corporate world while claiming that’s not what she wants. And the corporate backing of her efforts to truly do some good for non-white, non-Western women turn out to be empty gestures.

Wolitzer’s hyper-awareness of the problems with how the banner of feminism is carried today is interesting, but, ultimately, I felt like this book was written to meet a marketing niche rather than tell a story. It took a lot of effort, a lot of powering through to finish reading a chapter and start the next one. I kept wanting to put the book down and move on, but the buzz surrounding it and the fact that my book club picked it for our December meeting kept me going. Barely.

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