You should know, up front, that I am what passes for a version of a man, these days. If I was reading a novel called The Female Persuasion blind, I would hesitatingly admit that it wouldn’t be a title that screamed out to be read by me. But then I am aware that most people in the world don’t read and, of those that do, most of them are women (and of the men who read, most read magazines or, at a push, nonfiction). If you’re reading this, and you’re a man who reads novels, know that you are in a small minority. It may be that a brief conversation was had at Meg Wolitzer’s American publishers regarding whether men would be likely to pick this book up and I imagine there will have been a moment of silence before they all broke up laughing. #whocares, right? I said ‘if I was reading a novel called The Female Persuasion blind’. Thankfully I didn’t read The Female Persuasion blind because I’d read Meg Wolitzer’s previous book, The Interestings and was waiting for this like a child waits for Christmas. Meg Wolitzer has an unerring ability to fashion an immersive narrative that simply sweeps you away. The Female Persuasion is no exception and – if you’re a fan of The Interestings yourself – know that this is at least as good as that.
Greer Kadetsky stands front and centre, a young shy college student when we meet her, away from her long-term boyfriend Corey for the first time and nervously making friends with the likes of Zee, a slightly more confident and worldly-wise young woman who considers herself both activist and queer (as opposed to lesbian). Persuaded to attend a seminar given by celebrated feminist Faith Frank (imagine Germaine Greer and then nod to yourself as you consider the playfulness of Wolitzer’s young narrators name), Greer begins a long journey to find her ‘outside voice’: taking a job at Frank’s dubiously funded women’s foundation, Loci (pronounced low-sigh), and charting the corporate path many of us have that begins with enthusiasm and excitement and inevitably wends its way through disenchantment and disbelief to eventual rupture.
But The Female Persuasion (the title taken from a celebrated book written by Frank) is more than just the story of Greer Kadetsky. There is almost Franzen-like time given over to Cory (who comes from lowly immigrant parents and has high ambitions until a family disaster knocks him for six), Zee (unknowingly betrayed by Greer, finding her own way through jobs that call to her – or don’t), Faith (a rich, warm, intelligent women who still manages to surprise up until the last page we hear from her), as well as Emmett Schrader, the investor for whom Faith Frank casts a long shadow. Wolitzer flips perspective in a way that is extremely pleasing, scanning backwards or sometimes forwards, fleshing out both sides of a perspective, rarely spending more time than is necessary to get you to where you need to be and often sketching other avenues the novel could take (such as the relationship between Faith Frank and Annie, who goes on to be a powerful anti-abortion campaigner) with enough detail to ensure her immersive world feels vividly real (after all, consider how much is unresolved in your own life right now, and how little you probably plan to do about any of it).
We don’t need to go on about #metoo or the often fractious ways in which issues are debated online or in the media (just consider how contentious Germaine Greer or even Margaret Atwood are with certain branches of feminism); what Wolitzer is particularly good at in The Female Persuasion is tolerance, tolerance for debate, recognition that other schools of thought exist, willingness to attempt to engage, even if one has an opinion that is in opposition (we’re all for tolerance and willingness to debate here at Bookmunch Towers).
“Faith thought that she didn’t have to be like them all, but she also recognised that they were in it together – “it” being the way it was for them. For women. The way it had been for centuries. The stuck place. She sang along with them. her voice coming out in a loud quaver. But it didn’t matter that you quavered; it only mattered that you made yourself heard.”
Wolitzer also eschews sugar coating the sisterhood – women in The Female Persuasion behave badly, sometimes recognise that and sometimes, importantly, don’t – whilst at the same time remaining vaguely sympathetic towards men who don’t always get it. In other words, she presents the world as a complicated place and doesn’t shoe horn in two dimensional stereotypes to make a didactic point.
We said the book is almost Franzen-like and it makes us feel nervous just because we know how Franzen is viewed amongst certain of the reading public – so a note to flesh that point out a little. Wolitzer and Franzen are both writers of a type. Their worlds are, for the most part, realistic, their narratives driven by character rather than action, honest plausibility as important as verifiable truths. Where Wolitzer diverges from Franzen (who often can be agenda-driven) is in her warmth, her sympathy. Reading Meg Wolitzer as a grown-up is, for me, a lot like reading John Irving when I was a lot younger. This is a reading experience that picks you up and carries you away with it. You give yourself up to it and you go where it takes you. We tore through The Female Persuasion in a day and emerged in a slightly pleasant drunken fug of enjoyment.
What’s more, where The Interestings was enough to get us excited for whatever Wolitzer did next, The Female Persuasion is persuasion enough to send us skipping back through Wolitzer’s eight previous novels. And you know there’s nothing we like more than falling in with a writer so much that we need to back catalogue them.
Any Cop?: A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a few hours, a novel that is both escapist and engaged with the world about us, an entertainment but a spirited and intelligent entertainment. Jolly big thumb’s up from us.