Social Activism and Its Discontents

Meg Wolitzer has long been every-thing Jonathan Franzen should be; a wry, smart, observer of The Way We Live Now, a novelist who chooses a milieu to hone in on and then draws a careful, exacting portrait. Wolitzer broke through the noise with 2013’s The Interestings, which followed a group of artsy friends who meet at a camp in New England on different paths in life. The novel was a study in envy, personal and professional, and the way jealousy and friendship can walk together hand in hand throughout an entire life.The Female Persuasion (Riverhead Books, $28), Woliter’s newest novel, is sure to be even more of a conversation starter: it’s the kind of book whose rain-bow-covered galleys have been showing up as a brag in writers’ Instagram feeds for months, the kind that the publisher is unabashedly marketing as a “Great American Novel.”

As it happens, it’s an exceedingly well-timed book about feminism—the rare novel which specifically concerns itself with social activism and its discontents, a story that has at its heart the relationship between Greer, a new college graduate coming into politics, and her feminist icon mentor—a subject that feels appropriate as dozens of thinkpieces examine a so-called generation gap between #MeToo-embracing, twitter-loving millennials and their dismissive second-wave maternal figures. Greer, whom we first meet on the cusp of college, is not particularly “woke,” to use the parlance of our times, when she matriculates—but she is an overachiever with hapless hippie parents who broke her heart by refusing to pay her Ivy League tuition. A disturbing freshman-year experience with a predatory frat boy is soon followed by a chance encounter with Faith Frank, a tall-boot-wearing feminist icon who reads like Gloria Steinem with a tiny sliver of Sheryl Sandberg—she’s the founder and editor of a magazine called Bloomer which is clearly modeled on Ms. (and perhaps Lilith too?).

These formative collisions with misogyny and institutional feminism respectively end up determining Greer’s direction in life: a few earnest emails later and she’s another young woman with an entry-level job in New York, but this time the person she’s working for is Faith, a woman who inspires other women for a living.

The narrative follows Greer’s climb from naive college freshman to confident leader in her own right, and pivots at the inevitable hard look she has to take at Faith as a leader and person in order to come into her own. Greer has companions for her journey into adulthood: a steady if not fully devoted boyfriend, Cory, who is her neighbor from home, and a best friend named Zee, a much more radical type, whose rarefied Scarsdale upbringing (her parents are both “Judge Eisenstat”) and reactive rebellion are the most pitch-perfect pages in the book, covering a subject Wolitzer clearly knows well. There’s much about the novel that feels like a combination caress and teasing poke for feminists in the know, from the description of Ragtime, a Vagina Monologues-like play, to the online critiques of privileged white feminists by queer women and women of color—that maybe this book will experience too. Selling out is a major pre-occupation of The Female Persuasion. It’s remarkably savvy on the process by which the inevitable demise of Bloomer magazine leads to Faith’s sponsorship (or co-optation, depending on how you describe it) by a corporate entity that focuses on “empowering” conferences for mostly wealthy women (Hi, Arianna Huffington). It’s this latter move that ultimately sets up a conflict—small, but also as massive as the world itself—between mentor and protege.

As Wolitzer herself might ask in her previous book, all this seems interesting, but is it good, in the deeper and more poetic sense? The answer is yes. Because even if both Greer and Faith feel occasionally like symbols—of “naive but ultimately assured millennial feminism” and “compromised if well-meaning Boomer feminism”—more than they do flesh and blood, the novel pushes forward with such heartfelt force that it’s hard not to feel genuinely moved by the end, and to see these creations as people in their own right. And Wolitzer can tell a human story too. A gut-wrenching tragedy halfway through feels manipulative at first, but the way it alters the characters’ lives, particularly Cory’s own journey and its implication for his gender role, pays such unexpected emotional dividends that by the end you feel the author has earned her choice.

Wolitzer clearly loved writing this book, using its pages to pour out her thoughts on how women inspire each other and disappoint each other and inspire each other again. Her animated intellectual energy shines through. A big novel of ideas that also gets its readers to feel and empathize deeply? This is no small accomplishment.

Sarah Seltzer is a writer and editor in NYC. She tweets at @sarahmseltzer.