One of the two women at the center of Meg Wolitzer's absorbing new novel, The Female Persuasion, is a legendary feminist named Faith Frank. Faith, who's in her 60s when the story begins, seems to be modeled on Gloria Steinem: She's charismatic, sexy and witty. We're told that Faith is not "a firebrand or a visionary; her talent was different. She could sift and distill ideas and present them in a way that made other people want to hear them."
In the age of identity politics and intersectionality, however, Faith is often slammed for being too mainstream; the magazine she helped found, called Bloomer, is mocked by one of its upstart competitors, a radical blog called Fem Fatale, for providing nothing more than "pep talk[s] to straight white middle-class women."
As a novelist, Wolitzer herself shares many of her Steinem-like character's strengths and perceived weaknesses. Wolitzer is one of those rare writers who creates droll and entertaining novels of ideas. Her novels aren't experimental, nor are they particularly diverse, though she makes an effort to be inclusive.
When Faith Frank defends her working-within-the-system brand of feminist politics in this novel, you can also hear Wolitzer defending her own traditional turf as a novelist. The Female Persuasion is about a lot of things: the arc of the feminist movement, female mentorship and the inevitable moment when a younger generation comes to judge its elders as lacking.
But The Female Persuasion also makes a strong case for critic Lionel Trilling's theory that the novel of ideas is a critical tool against overconfidence --particularly the blithe overconfidence of smart people (radical, liberal or conservative) who think they've arrived at readily satisfying solutions to political and personal questions. As Wolitzer dramatizes, life isn't that straightforward and art shouldn't be either.
The Female Persuasion opens in 2006, when a first-year college student named Greer Kadetsky goes to hear Faith Frank speak on campus. Greer is smart but unfocused: Her hippy-dippy parents haven't given her any direction and her most significant relationship is with her high school boyfriend, Corey.
The son of Portuguese immigrants, Corey landed at Princeton while Greer is marooned at the fictional Ryland College, where, as she dryly notes, her dorm room walls "were the disturbing color of hearing aids."
A place like Ryland wouldn't have snagged a celebrity like Faith Frank in her prime, but as our omniscient narrator tells us, Faith is now "seen as someone from the past. ... She was like a pilot light that burned continuously, comfortingly."
Listening to Faith's talk that night, however, Greer is smitten. Afterwards, a nervous Greer bumps into her new idol in the women's room and blurts out to her, "I don't really know how to be."
It's a small, sincere moment that will transform Greer's life. Years later, she'll go to work for Faith's feminist foundation. And, because this novel hops around in time, we also know that Greer will become famous herself and eventually supplant her foremother, Faith.
Like Wolitzer's best-selling 2013 novel, The Interestings, The Female Persuasion manages a sprawling cast of characters; among them are Greer's queer college roommate, Zee, who herself tries to mentor the young after graduation by working for a Teach for America-type organization, here wryly called Teach and Reach.
The post-Princeton path of Greer's boyfriend, Corey, is even more compelling. Corey sets out to be a high-flying financial consultant, but a family tragedy pulls him back home to care full-time for his mother; eventually, he even takes over her housecleaning jobs to make ends meet. In short, Corey performs women's work. Ironically, that's a situation that doesn't sit well with Greer, the professional feminist.
There are a few false notes in this novel: chief among them, the ultimate confrontation between Faith and Greer, which echoes the climax of another female mentor tale, The Devil Wears Prada. But, overall, Wolitzer nimbly avoids the canned and simplistic. Midway through the novel, Greer reflects on her ambivalent need for Faith's approval. "The approval," she thinks to herself, "was soft as velvet, and the desire for that approval was, also like velvet, a little vulgar."
If we readers have been lucky, we've had someone in our lives like Faith, someone who inspired us, someone who we (maybe overconfidently) now think we've outdistanced.