This One’s for the Girls

My feminist awakening wasn’t spurred by some emotional moment that shook my whole being. Rather, my awakening happened in the driveway of my parents’ house as I lounged in a lawn chair reading The Scarlet Letter. My 17-year-old self was nearing the end of the book when I had my ah-ha moment. The injustice of Hester Prynne’s plight sickened me, but the way she endured and owned her predicament empowered me. I even texted the guy I was sort-of-but-not-really seeing at the time and essentially said “I GET IT NOW.” (I think he wrote back “lol” as one high school boy does.)

The main character in The Female Persuasion happened upon her feminist awakening in a much bigger, more significant way: after she was sexually assaulted at a fraternity party her freshman year of college. In the midst of the #metoo movement, Meg Wolitzer’s most recent novel speaks to a society that also needs to be roused awake. It’s calculated and necessary; the only downfall is the book doesn’t carry the spunk and power needed to really make its mark. Where her novel soars with meaning and relevance, it lacks in poignancy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite do the topic justice.

The Female Persuasion

“All that reading took. It became as basic as any other need. To be lost in a novel meant you were not lost in your own life, the drafty, disorganized, lumbering bus of a house, the disinterested parents.” — The Female Persuasion

Greer Kadetsky is smart, witty, and yearning to use her ambition but lacks the confidence to speak her mind and fight for what’s right. She’s also bitter at her irresponsible parents who failed to fill out financial aid forms, forcing her to enroll in a less-than and smaller college, Ryland, rather than her top choice, Yale. The Ivy League is where she and her boyfriend, with whom she is very much in love, were supposed to see all of their dreams come true. Now they’re forced into long-distance. She carries these feelings of resentment and frustration with her the night she’s sexually assaulted at a frat party.

This horrific experience bares two positive and long-lasting effects though. First, it solidifies female friendships with the young women she ventured out with that night, including Zee who would become her best friend and ride-or-die in every hard fight. Which brings me to number two: Greer finally finds an outlet for that inner ambition she’s always possessed by fighting for justice.

These lead her to meet Faith Frank, a Gloria Steinem-type in her 60s who’s influenced generations of young women through her fighting spirit and powerful words. The rest of the book details the relationship between mentee and mentor, all of the highs that come from associating yourself with your role models, and all of the lows that come from realizing they are just as morally conflicted and imperfect as you are — regardless of how hard they try. This narrative peaks just as the mentee is coming into her own.

“No one knew how this kind of focused ambition got into someone’s system; it was like a fly that’s slipped into a house, and there it is: your housefly.” — The Female Persuasion

The Female Persuasion is intended to be a rallying cry for women to fight for equality, and it’s also a work of art that would ideally inspire us to stick together rather than betray and disrespect one another, something we see all too frequently. The only thing is this rallying cry is kind of a boring one and doesn’t particularly fire you up.

It shares characteristics with Wolitzer’s The Wife (1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px1463390917-2400px). It’s witty, funny, emotionally detailed, and makes you question how you would act in conflicting situations. Unlike her previous work, it falls flat. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why, but this book is very ho-hum. Nothing about it punches you in the gut or riles you up about the unfairness of being female, though that’s exactly what I had anticipated — and what the book had promised. I suspect it hasn’t and won’t have the same powerful effect on budding feminists that The Scarlet Letter had on me.

That’s not to say The Female Persuasion doesn’t have the goods. In fact, many aspects of the book point to solid literature. Some of the most memorable and timeless pieces of writing are those that spoke to the time in which they were published. Look at The Great Gatsby. Published in 1925, it evidences the excessiveness of the roaring ’20s. The same applies to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, my second feminist read that solidified everything I discovered in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece. Its main character, Edna Pontellier, struggles with society’s role for women just before a wave of feminism is sparked at the onset of the 20th century.

“There are never going to be grades for the rest of your life, so you just have to do what you want to do. Forget about how it looks. Think about what it is.” — The Female Persuasion

Wolitzer has taken from these legends in her newest book and is speaking to every woman who’s experienced injustice because of their sex, which is to say all women. And she’s doing this during a critical time in our country. We’ve all been there: the cat-calling, ass-grabbing, touching that goes too far, the condescension from male associates. And sometimes it goes even further, which can damage a whole woman’s being, the pain of which nobody can understand unless you’ve experienced it.

Wolitzer’s fiction symbolizes this shared experience, and it’s a powerful concept. How many writers can say they’ve created something that resonates with half of the human race? It’s also so different from anything else that’s out there right now. You read so much about romantic love, familial love, and even that between friends. You don’t often see fiction about role models, especially those who are 40 years older than the main character.

“I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.” — The Female Persuasion

So we need this plot. This necessity, the book’s differentiating factor, and its relevance all give The Female Persuasion a boost. But resonate all you want; a book will never stick if it lacks powerful words and doesn’t dig into your emotional core. That’s when you’ve truly found magic in literature. Sadly, Wolitzer’s novel is far more female than it is persuasion.

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