Meg Wolitzer must be psychic. Well before the explosive allegations against Harvey Weinstein were revealed and the #MeToo movement gathered pace, she penned The Female Persuasion, a novel about feminism, and finding your voice.
Published on June 7th, the Female Persuasion tells the story of Greer Kadetsky’s coming-of-age, from her edifying arrival at Rutland College to her encounter with the dazzling Faith Frank, and the ensuing intergenerational friendship which shapes Greer’s experience of the world.
This isn’t the first time that Wolitzer has tackled the bildungsroman trope; her 2014 novel The Interestings follows a group of 6 teenagers, who meet at a summer camp the year that Nixon resigns. The novel follows their divergent lives through youth and middle age; it’s a fascinating study into the enduring nature of creativity and the transience of satisfaction.
Unlike The Interestings, though, The Female Persuasion puts the female coming-of-age experience at the heart of this novel. From the loss of her virginity to her first boyfriend, to the unsettling experience of having her breast grabbed at a college party, Greer’s story is full of moments that every millennial woman will find mirrored in her own life. Early in the novel, Greer, a shy bookworm paralysed by her inexperience, laments that she is not one of those women described as ‘spitfires’ and ‘kickass’, women with ‘fuck-you confidence’ who are ‘assured of their place in the world’. Wolitzer draws wonderful parallels between Greer and her best friend Zee, described as ‘bracingly, innately political’; her temerity acts as a foil to Greer’s timidity, which gradually wanes as the novel progresses.
When it comes to the representation of #MeToo in the novel, Wolitzer’s prescience is astounding. Not only does the description of serial groper Darren Tinsler hit awfully close to home post-Weinstein, but she also predicts the value mismatch between Second Wave and Fourth Wave feminists which has pervaded much of the #MeToo discussion. In the novel, Greer and Faith’s relationship breaks down after Greer becomes disillusioned with some of Faith’s actions, which she feels are contradictory to her feminist values, such as her sleeping with a married man, and her turning a blind eye to ethical neglectfulness on a refuge camp for trafficked women in Ecuador.
Speaking of Greer, it is no coincidence that the novel’s main character shares a name with arguably the most influential feminist of the 1970s, Germaine Greer, who now seems to be spending much of her time arguing with current feminists about the moment which we’re living through. Wolitzer has hesitated in directly confirming the correlation between the names, admitting instead that she ‘unconsciously’ named the character Greer after remembering seeing The Female Eunuch on her mother’s bookshelf.
In the novel, Faith Frank is a bastion of Second Wave feminism; it feels like Germaine Greer is her real-life counterpart. Through this characterisation, Wolitzer asks the question that has troubled 21st century feminism during #MeToo so far: namely, is it possible to admire the foundational work that Second Wave feminists did to underpin the societal progress women have made over the past 30 years, without necessarily agreeing with everything that these women are saying in the present moment? After all, each generation of feminists has certain privileges, thanks to the previous generation, but they also have very different experiences of the world, and as such, have developed different attitudes.
And this is partly why Wolitzer’s novel is so powerful – it captures a moment in time, for a certain generation of women, and enshrines #MeToo in a literary format. It is not historically and socially overarching or comprehensive because ultimately, it is a work of fiction. It succeeds in revealing the cracks in our current incarnation of feminism, in an insightful manner, and encourages us to think about the freedoms that we’re entitled to. More than anything who, the novel forces us to take a look back over the past 12 months, and see just how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. At the end of the novel, Greer bemoans that men ‘always get to set the terms’. ‘They don’t ask, they just do it’, she complains. ‘I don’t want to keep repeating this forever. I don’t want to keep having to live in the buildings they make.’ Wolitzer’s novel landed in the centre of a female revolution, which brought those buildings crumbling down. It’s our time, now, to pick up our tools, and, brick by brick, begin to rebuild.
By Sophie Perryer.