When deciding what to read this summer, I looked for books that were popular among readers whose opinions I admire. This worked well for the first two novels I read this summer (Little Fires Everywhere & The Great Alone), so I hoped I’d continue to have luck with my next pick: the highly anticipated The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer’s 11th novel. Hailed as the “#MeToo novel” that we all need, I expected a female-centric, feminist expose of sorts in novel form. What I got, however, was a bit different. I’m going to preface this review by saying I really enjoyed this book. The writing kept me engaged and I honestly expected it to take me a long time (it’s 454 pages!), but it took me just over a week. I liked Greer, the protagonist, and related to her in many ways. I, too, was once the shy, self-doubting young woman who entered young adulthood as one person and became much more empowered during my college years, and began finding “my outside voice,” as Greer would say, in recent years.
Now, what I also want to start with is the fact that I disagree with the notion this is the “#MeToo” novel. In fact, I don’t really feel any single novel can be the Me Too novel because each experience is legitimate and different and personal. No two experiences are identical, so how can one voice speak for them all? While the novel opens with an incident involving shy, unassuming Greer and a belligerent fraternity brother touching her boob, the novel does not tackle sexual assault in a fleshed-out way. In fact, the incident serves much more as a catalyst for Greer to find her voice and invest in a cause and care more about feminism and the female experience than she had ever even thought about. The incident sets up Greer’s future endeavors and is the foundation upon which the awe and admiration grows for Faith Frank, an old wave feminist who comes to speak at Greer’s college following the encounter with frat guy who believed he had license over Greer’s body. The real focus of the novel, in that sense, is not about sexual assault or the Me Too movement, but rather about female relationships, mentorship, and what causes us to admire certain people, to hold them in such esteem we forbid ourselves from recognizing their faults until their faults smack us in the face almost as palpably as unwanted caresses from men as we navigate the roads of being female in this world. So, while I don’t think this book is the next great american novel on sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and holding men in power and men in general accountable for inappropriate and damaging actions, I do think it says a lot about where we are with feminism.
And by where we are, I mean the muddled, unclear definition of feminism that attaches to so many encounters and choices and lives. I will say, this novel is marketed as having tackled feminism with a capital F, but I don’t think it does that and that by not tackling Feminism as a whole, it is actually a better read. This story is much more personal than feminism with a capital F. It’s about Greer’s relationship with feminism, and Greer only begins to explore what feminism is and get involved with the feminist movement after being assaulted at the frat house in college. That’s what made this book work: it’s one person’s experience with feminism and her discovering what kind of feminist she wants to be. I’ve read some reviews that chastise the story for being too much “privileged white girl” feminism. I think that’s a fair assessment in some ways. Did it annoy me when Greer complained about going to a “sub par” college when some women do not have the opportunity or access to attend college at all? Yes. Did I hope that women of color would be better represented? Yes. But I think part of my disappointments with the shortcomings I sometimes felt while reading were rooted firmly in the marketing of this book. I was expecting the expose on feminism, modern feminism specifically, and I expected the novel to tackle all that feminism encompasses. However, had I gone into this book expecting it to be more about mentorship, finding your voice, and young womanhood, I would have been satisfied and not as critical at points.
I will say, discussing feminism can be a bit daunting. You don’t want to say the wrong thing or inadvertently imply something that’s incorrect. That’s why I appreciated that this novel showed that feminism and the methods through which to achieve equality for women is a personal journey and the reasons that women become more assertive about female issues are unique to each woman. Further, female-ness and femininity is also personal. Also, with the stigma about feminists being man-haters, I think this book begins to address how a woman asserting herself more forcefully and demanding to be heard can affect her relationships with men. In one story, however, the affect is more internal to Greer and she ends up isolating herself. Cory, Greer’s high school boyfriend, suffers a terrible tragedy that sends him home to assume traditionally feminine roles. Greer, a now self-proclaimed feminist seems to believe that in doing so Cory has swerved severely off-track and lost his way and is no longer “good enough.” Though this isn’t explicit, it’s heavily implied. What I liked about this was that it shows that even women who hail themselves a feminist sometimes miss the mark. If equality is what we want, we should not be baffled by men who assume traditionally feminine roles just like we should not be baffled when women occupy traditionally masculine roles. I wanted a bit more from male-female dynamics in this book, but I was still content with what I got.
I would prefer to classify this book as a coming-of-age story that uses various relationships to illustrate Greer’s journey into womanhood and NOT the “Me Too Movement book of the year.” Another important note that I learned about myself as a reader is that I often reach for dialogue driven books. I like to learn about characters through their actions, their words, etc. This book is written much more as a decade-spanning story that is being told through the eyes of a third person narrator. So, it almost feels as if you’re sitting down with a strong woman, say your grandmother or female mentor, and she’s recounting people’s lives to you. There is minimal dialogue and you are told how the characters are much more than you are shown. This bothered me a bit, but honestly the writing kept me so engaged that I just kept reading. I rarely reach for a pen to underline the fiction I read (surprising for an English major? maybe, but I prefer to keep my books pristine when reading for pleasure). However, with this novel, I felt like a few lines just had to be underlined, and I kept saying “yessss!” to myself about certain observations made.
For those who want to pick up this book, I would say go into with no more expectations than you do for other novels. Do not assume this book holds all the answers about feminism because it doesn’t. The book itself doesn’t end with an answer about what we do with feminism, but rather ends by merely observing there is more work to be done to achieve true equality. And that seems appropriate, as there is always more work to be done.
I do recommend this read and I’d love to have a discussion with any of you who have read it! It gave me a lot to consider, and I need to discuss!