The Female Persuasion
By Meg Wolitzer
Read Sept 2019
This reader has mixed feelings about this book.
We meet Greer during the first weekend of her college career. She is disappointed and angry with her parents that she had to accept a full scholarship at a lower tier liberal arts college instead of attending Yale. She couldn’t attend Yale, although she was accepted there, because Greer didn’t get any financial support from Yale due to incomplete a financial aid application provided them by her parents. At a party that first Friday night, she is inappropriately touched by a young man at a frat party. Eventually there is a hearing at the college about this and other similar incidents and the young man is given essentially a soft slap on the wrist. Greer is angry but feels impotent. Fortunately her new activist friend, Zee, takes her to a campus lecture by Faith Frank, a 60-something editor of a feminist magazine, Bloomer. Greer and Zee run into Faith in the women’s room after the lecture and Greer leaves with her business card and substantial enthusiasm for the feminist concepts she heard at the lecture.
After graduation, Greer lands an interview for a job at Bloomer. Unfortunately Bloomer closes the day of her interview, but she is later contacted by Faith Frank for a job with her new foundation that is being financially backed by a venture capitalist (with whom Faith had a one-night stand some 40 years previously). Greer joins with enthusiasm and Faith Frank becomes a mentor. Over time the foundation’s work directly impacting women decreases and its work producing slick conferences with high ticket prices increases. Eventually Greer learns of a controversy associated with a recent conference, confronts Faith, and quits the foundation. In that encounter, Faith reminds Greer that Greer also had an ethical lapse when she first joined the foundation—Greer told Faith about, but never passed onto Faith, a letter from her friend, Zee, requesting consideration for a position.
In the meantime, boyfriend Cory, following graduation from Princeton, where he had a full-ride scholarship, has joined a high-end consulting firm and is living somewhat decadently with other similarly aged consultants at the company’s Malaysian site. His plans to make a lot of money fast to fund a start-up with some friends are interrupted when his family suffers a significant tragedy. He returns home to care for his mother. Greer initially shares his pain but becomes confused as he continues stays to help his mom and seems to have given up on his career aspirations.
After graduation, college friend Zee joins a program that provides a few weeks of training to become a teacher in charter schools that have contracted with them to supply teacher. She quickly becomes overwhelmed by the challenges she faces as an underqualified teacher in the charter school with high aspirations but little capabilities. She leaves this position and gets training for and becomes a crisis counselor. During this period, Zee comes out as gay and finds a life partner. She learns that Greer did not pass on her letter to Faith but the friends eventually reconcile.
Greer is the only one of the three that seems to have a fairly easy path to success. Despite the poor financial aid application, she still gets a full-ride scholarship to the second (third?) tier school. Faith Frank takes her into a nice paying foundation job and provides her mentorship and sponsorship. After quitting the foundation, she manages to write a feminist book, Outdoor Voices that provides her with enough money to buy a brownstone home in Brooklyn and renovate it (if she hadn’t decided to divert the renovation money to her parents and Cory’s mom). She reconnects with Cory and has a baby by the time she’s touring to promote the book.
So why does this reader have mixed feelings about this book?
On the one hand, Wolitzer describes well, and with great detail, the experiences of the three young people as they deal with the challenges of their college days. She does similarly well with the post-graduation stories for Cory and Zee and raises the question of what constitutes an acceptable career trajectory. Is Cory wasting his intelligence by caring for his mother, cleaning houses, and working at a local computer store or are family needs more important? On the other hand, this reader didn’t feels Greer’s path had the same credibility.
While the omnipotent narrator presents substantial detail about the feelings of Greer, Cory, and Zee, that narrator is fairly quiet when it comes to Faith Frank. There is a section devoted to providing Faith Frank’s history, but it’s fairly brief compared to words devoted to the younger characters but does give us some unnecessary (to this reader) details of her short affair with the man who will eventually fund her foundation. We see Faith’s actions at the foundation through Greer’s eyes but little from Faith’s view. She’s been a rock star in the feminist world based on her book Female Persuassion. She’s been the head of a magazine, Bloomer, that, while now closed, existed for 20+ years. She continued to be a successful speaker, charging up new women to speak up. But how does she feel about her new role and platform? It’s not clear.
The most confusing aspect of the book for this reader was the lack of clarity about what feminism means now-its objectives, for whom, and who should be working for it. Faith Frank’s conferences are priced such that their participants have substantial bank accounts who like to hear about power from movie stars while eating fancy food. We don’t know how she really feels about her current work. Why? We know all the others’ characters feelings about many things. Greer’s book Outside Voices seems to sending the message that it’s all about speaking up. This message is being sent by a woman who wrote speeches for other women based on stories she obtained from them, even when it wasn’t true. Certainly mentoring and supporting younger women is important as is gaining your voice to be able to speak up. But what else? This reader is not sure that either Faith or Greer know the answer to this question either.