A favorite theme of Wolitzer’s is the question of how, by whatever combination of advantage, obstacle, will power, encouragement, and chance, we get to wherever we’re going, and, much like “The Interestings,” “The Female Persuasion” is a novel about growing up. Greer’s encounter with Faith Frank sets the course that carries her into adulthood. After graduating, she moves to New York to work at Loci, a new feminist organization that Faith has founded to address “the most urgent issues concerning women today.” Wolitzer keeps her sights on the rest of her young cast, too, and as the novel advances we follow the idealistic Zee as she struggles with a Teach for America-type job in Chicago, and witness Cory’s stint as a consultant cut short by family tragedy. They’re good eggs, these millennials, each earnestly trying to figure out what it means to build a meaningful life.
But the core of the novel is Greer’s coming of age, and the role that Faith Frank plays in it. In a long flashback, Wolitzer shows us how Faith arrived at her politics. The daughter of overprotective parents from Bensonhurst, she left the claustrophobia of home for Las Vegas, where she worked as a cocktail waitress and went to bed with musicians and blackjack dealers until her roommate had a nearly fatal back-alley abortion, which initiated a feminist awakening. It’s a familiar generational story of a mid-century consciousness raised, though one of the novel’s nice comic ironies is that the roommate goes on to become a rabidly anti-choice senator from Indiana, made far more politically powerful by her own brand of political radicalization than Faith could ever hope to be made by hers.
At Loci, Faith is a model of empathetic female mentorship, in corrective contrast to Selby Rothberg of “The Ten-Year Nap.” She’s also a little vain, and Wolitzer pokes delicious fun at the foibles of a career speechifier in her grande-dame phase who can’t quite turn off the well-modulated profundity, whether she’s out at a bar with her colleagues—“The world is so enormous, but if you have places where they know what you like to drink, then all is well ”—or on her way to the salon to get her highlights touched up: “If I added up all the time I’ve spent in such places, I could probably have traveled the world. Done something much more significant than sitting in a chair being passive and wearing a plastic cape like a superhero of nothing.”
Faith’s younger employees eat up her chic self-deprecation, even as evidence mounts that she may no longer be the feminist warrior she once was. Loci is supported by a venture-capital guy whose professed interest in the feminist cause also provides cover for his questionable business ethics. Over time, the work that Faith does there comes to seem aimed mainly at empowering wealthy women to open their checkbooks to her. Wolitzer gamely parodies Loci’s Lean In-style conferences, with their celebrity keynote speakers and well-connected audiences, but the sheer corporate dullness of the place starts to sap the novel of its vitality, and Greer of her idealism. Elsewhere, she knows, women of her generation are forging scrappy feminist ventures of their own, trying to articulate what matters to them and to their world. Frequent mention is made of Fem Fatale, an irreverent Jezebel-type Web site that “had shifted away from personal essays and was embracing a radical critique of racism, sexism, capitalism, and homophobia.” Part of that critique is aimed at Faith Frank: “Time to give another pep talk to straight white middle-class women,” the site chides. So why does Greer stay so loyal? At an office retreat at Faith’s country house, Greer slices her thumb while helping to cook, and as her boss bandages her up she contemplates her charisma:
The light touch of this powerful woman was profound. So too was her choice to use her power in this tender way. Maybe that’s what we want from women, Greer thought as her thumb pulsed and percolated with blood. Maybe that’s what we imagine it would be like to have a woman lead us.
It’s not quite clear whether Wolitzer is satirizing this kind of pabulum or sympathizing with it. Refreshing though it is to encounter a literary model of genuine female mentorship and encouragement, her tale of a millennial woman’s feminist awakening comes to seem blinkered and strangely incurious. Greer in her mid-twenties seems hardly less naïve, or better informed, than she was at eighteen. When she thinks of an alternative to patriarchy, can she imagine nothing more radical than a glorified version of maternal caregiving? There is an obvious, odd omission here. Though Wolitzer extends her novel into 2019, acknowledging the Trump era, too cutely, as “the big terribleness,” nowhere does she mention the woman whom Trump ran against. Faith, who has traded her youthful activism for corporate pragmatism and establishment bona fides, has more than a dash of Hillary in her, and maybe Wolitzer felt that a dash sufficed. It is nonetheless awkward for this realist novel about women and power to trim reality in a way that neatly excises the woman who has served as our national lightning rod for conversations, good, bad, and ugly, about women in power during exactly the period that it purports to examine.
The risk for a novel that tries to capture the Zeitgeist is that the Zeitgeist is liable to shift at any moment. Indeed, the timeliness of Wolitzer’s subject, initially such a boon to the novel, ultimately deals it a major blow. The events of the past few months, and the fierce discussions about feminism that they have engendered, have proved to be far more electrifying and complex than anything that Wolitzer depicts here. Surpassed by the present that it aims to depict, the novel feels amiable and mild by comparison, already quaintly out of date. This is particularly clear when it comes to the question of generational conflict among women. Young people demand action, and sweeping societal change, as young people must; older people preach caution, and incremental advances, as older people do. We know that Faith and Greer are destined for a falling-out, but when conflict does at last arise it is over a question of corporate negligence—a narrative technicality, and a sorely missed opportunity for the book to explore more revealing differences between a movement’s standard-bearers and their protégés, who must embrace them to learn, and reject them to grow.
“One person replaces another,” Greer reflects, close to the end of the novel. She has written her own book, “Outside Voices,” a popular manifesto in which she recounts how she learned to speak up for herself and encourages other women to do the same. It’s a best-seller. She now has a baby daughter, lives in a Brooklyn brownstone that she has bought on the strength of her book advance (in the name of solidarity, suspend your disbelief), and is considering starting her own foundation. She has become, in essence, a thirty-one-year-old version of Faith, a polished young spokeswoman for women’s personal empowerment. You want to congratulate her on her success, and also roll your eyes. A hopeful mood has settled over the novel; there is a sense that the female future is bright, at least for Greer, which isn’t to say that all is well. Darren Tinzler, for one, is running a revenge-porn Web site and ruining women’s lives. Greer despairs of his ever being brought to justice, but she shouldn’t give up hope. If reality can serve as any model for fiction, he may yet get what’s coming to him. ♦