In Meg Wolitzer’s singular novel, The Female Persuasion, college freshman Greer Kadetsky isn’t feeling fortunate. Growing up, she and her boyfriend, Cory Pinto, were “twin rocket ships” of intelligence and promise, destined for the Ivy League. Now he’s at Princeton; she’s at Ryland, a middling, mid-Atlantic safety school, because her gentle stoner parents failed to file financial aid forms.
On her own, she’s struggling to find her voice.
“She could give answers easily, but rarely opinions,” Wolitzer writes of Greer. “ ‘Which makes no sense, because I am stuffed with opinions. I am a piñata of opinions,’ she’d said to Cory during one of their nightly Skype sessions since college had separated them. She’d always been a tireless student and a constant reader, but she found it impossible to speak in the wild and free ways that other people did.”
When Greer hears famous second-wave feminist Faith Frank speak in a crowded chapel one October night, she finally gives herself permission to unload, boldly, during the audience Q-and-A. Meeting again, in the restroom after the event, is kismet: Faith hands Greer the talismanic business card that eventually leads them to become colleagues in the fight for women’s rights.
“We all are influenced all the time in so many different ways,” Wolizter says, “by what we see, by what we read, by who we become friends with, by who takes an interest in us, by whom we take an interest in, by everything. It’s like this series of tiny little direction changes all the time, and there’s no way to know what would have been—you could drive yourself crazy with that sort of Sliding Doors idea of your life—but it’s true that when someone recognizes something in you, it can be so powerful. It sometimes takes that outside recognition to make you recognize it in yourself. Some people don’t need that, some people don’t get it, but I wanted to describe that particular feeling.”
It’s the feeling that led her to dedicate The Female Persuasion to eight wonderful women “without whom....”
“Each of them, in a different way, was so generous toward me when I was young,” says Wolitzer, whose honorees range from her mother, the novelist Hilma Wolitzer, to Nora Ephron. “I wanted to dedicate the book to a woman who’d inspired me. All these names occurred to me, and I realized how fortunate I’d been.”
Greer’s best friend, Zee Eisenstat, the Faith fan who brought her to the event that night, doesn’t win Faith’s favor. Nor does Cory, who’s soon suffering the sorrow and setbacks of a major family tragedy. But under Faith’s influence, Greer ascends to a comparative level of feminist fame and esteem.
“That was it: why did she have to go through life feeling half-full?” she writes. “She wondered if some people got to feel fully full, or whether it was everyone’s fate to feel as if the state of being human was one in which the self was like a bag of something wonderful that had already been half-eaten.”
Aside from superior similes, one of the hallmarks of Wolitzer’s great American fiction is capaciousness. The Female Persuasion powerfully contends with intergenerational relationships, women’s worth, women’s power, what it means to lead a meaningful life, grief, triumph, betrayal, and the many benefits of keeping a pet turtle. For its grace and magnificence, Kirkus calls it “the perfect feminist blockbuster for our times.”
“Maybe what a blockbuster is,” she says, “is a book that tries to have an assertive conversation.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.