This must be Meg Wolitzer’s time. Although, with 11 previous novels, she’s hardly been waiting for the world to grant her approval – which is fortunate, given that Wolitzer is a female author with an unashamed interest in female lives, and approval has not always been forthcoming for writers in that line. Reviews of her early novels called them “weepy”, “oppressively sentimental”, “breezy” and “predictable” – not, one suspects, adjectives that would have been applied to a man writing similarly about men’s lives.
Wolitzer suspected the same: in a 2012 essay called “The Second Shelf”, she kicked back smartly against the gender apartheid of literature. Why, she asked, were Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen considered great American novelists when they wrote about families and relationships, but women who covered the same subjects consigned to “that close-quartered lower shelf” of “women’s fiction”?
There had been a time when women who wrote about women were seen as great talents, Wolitzer pointed out: “some of the most esteemed women writing today… came to prominence at an unusual moment in time when the women’s movement could be felt everywhere. Stories, long and short, and often about women’s lives, suddenly mattered to the cultural conversation.” Could such a moment happen again?
In 2018, we’re living through one. The Female Persuasion arrives dressed not in the livery of femininity, but with the “neutral illustration and bold typeface” that stand for ungendered excellence, as Wolitzer noted in “The Second Shelf”. A novel for the #MeToo era, by one of the writers who helped to get us here. (The New York Times review called it “uncannily timely”, but Wolitzer has been delivering the goods on women’s lives and politics for decades: she isn’t a witch, she’s just been paying attention.)
But most of all, The Female Persuasion is a novel about that most dysfunctional part of the women’s movement: the relationship between its generations. In 2006, the protagonist Greer is a freshman at a minor American university. She is unhappy, caught between her frustration at not getting to Yale thanks to her hippy parents’ desultory attitude to paperwork, and a diminishing confidence in her own cleverness.
Wolitzer’s sketch of the insecure over-achiever has a biting precision. Having left high school with a deft ability to “answer the kind of questions that your teachers asked”, Greer feels adrift in academia: “when it wasn’t just facts that were required, it got so much harder for her.”
Greer is left unhappier still following a frat party sexual assault by a repeat offender who receives the scantest of disciplinaries from the college. Other victims declare themselves sick of the subject and ready to move on, but for Greer – under the tutelage of her activist friend, Zee – the urgent need for justice gives her a purpose. When second-wave feminist icon Faith Frank (the Gloria Steinem-esque author of a best-seller on women’s leadership called The Female Persuasion) gives a talk, Greer and Zee are there in the front row, wearing T-shirts bearing the assailant’s face. And as Faith talks, Greer feels “something closely related to falling in love… love, which pollinated the air around Faith Frank”.
This love for Faith Frank becomes the defining force in Greer’s life. More so than Greer’s relationship with her high-school boyfriend, Cory; more so than her friendship with Zee, who is repaid for intro-
ducing Greer to feminism with a betrayal that is both plausibly tiny and agonisingly profound. Greer is devoted to Faith’s belief that women “could be strong and powerful, all the while keeping their integrity
and decency”; but, as her literature tutor notes when teaching Vanity Fair, she also has an intuitive grasp of the anti-hero figure. There is something of Becky Sharp about her.
That allusion suggests that The Female Persuasion will be a satirical savaging of modern feminism. It’s not. In fact, as Greer and Zee undertake their parallel careers – Greer working in the corporate slick of Faith’s foundation, Zee on the front line as a teacher in a deeply deprived school – what’s remarkable is how much more gentle Wolitzer’s rendering of the women’s movement is than the real thing. There are Twitterstorms, scrappy blogs devoted to “calling out” the “problematic”, scandals and disappointments, but the casualties of sisterhood are improbably mild.
Yet the textures of the world Wolitzer describes feel satisfyingly right, from shiny non-profits to shabby indie video game developers. And though there is a point when the characters have been thrown so far apart that the plot slightly sags, Wolitzer holds attention with her warm grasp of character and careful, probing working out of personality under the forces of time and trauma. Whether the current moment for women’s writing turns out to be a new epoch, or merely another wave that soon retreats, Wolitzer is the perfect chronicler for it.
The Female Persuasion
Chatto & Windus, £14.99
This article appears in the 30 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead