All the Ladies Say It: The Female Persuasion | 2018
"Maybe that's what we imagine it would be like to have a woman lead us. When women get into positions of power, they calibrated and recalibrated tenderness and strength, modulating and correcting. Power and love didn't often live side by side. If one came in, the other might go."
- The Female Persuasion, p. 172
The Sum of It:
The Female Persuasion, out this month by Meg Wolitzer, is essentially a character study of four lives, connected by a woman named Greer, who might be considered the main character. The others who move in and out of focus are her high school boyfriend, Cory, her college roommate, Zee, and her longtime hero and sometime boss, Faith Frank.
The book mainly covers the years from Greer's freshman year of college into her adulthood, but also touches on other life incidents. As might be expected from a book by this title, many of the incidents of Greer's life, as well as her friends, are seen through the lens of the feminist movement in America at a given point in time, starting in the early 2000's. Faith Frank, another central character, is fashioned as sort of a Gloria Steinem figure, though on a smaller scale, a glamorous feminist from the sixites who spends her entire life working on women's issues and running a small magazine devoted to women, and then a large foundation devoted to women, putting on huge international conferences and conducting occasional rescue missions for women in crisis around the world. The book touches on the fact that the type of feminism Faith represents, often called "white" feminism, is criticized by many for the type of issues she chooses to focus on, but mainly she serves as an inspirational figure for Greer for most of the book, helping her to come out of her shell, learn what she cares about, even when that causes a clash between them, and helping to shape her worldview as she grows from a teenager to a more settled and confident adult woman.
The B & C Treatment:
Full disclosure: I did not enjoy this book very much. I realize this is probably not going to be the common opinion among reviewers and book bloggers, I've already seen Nicole Kidman and other celebrity readers posting praise about it. But, we're here to be honest with our opinions so them's the breaks! In large part this is likely a result of this just not being the style of book I appreciate most, as I typically look for plot-driven tales rather than character-focused work, and the books I enjoy most employ prose in a way that adds an extra layer of interest and beauty to the story, and this book is much more straightforward in the way language is utilized. Character-focused books that I have enjoyed, like Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, have created truly compelling characters who have quite a bit to do besides dialogue their internal lives, and I found most of the characters in this story not to be particularly interesting. There were also several sections of the book that felt very YA to me in the level of angst and personal drama, and that is a genre I also don't really click with.
I also found myself frustrated as I couldn't quite figure out what the point of this book was meant to be, as I was expecting some insights and study into modern feminism through the characters, but it was mainly focused on their personal lives. Though this certainly included a lot of instances of them emphasizing how important feminism was to them, or identifying people as feminists, and as I mentioned earlier touched on the fact that feminism is sometimes a bit fractured by the desire to ensure that the movement is inclusive of all women, not just white women of some means, it didn't dig into that very much at all. I kept hoping I had reached the part where it was going to explore what a feminist movement that really made that coherent could look like, but it didn't. At the end a young character is demonstrating all the idealism and vigor of youth in talking about what new feminism is for her generation, but we see it almost as "ah, you'll be jaded too, someday, but good for you for now." And perhaps that was the point, that these political movements keep going in cycles, and some things change for the better, but other things don't, so new people take up the mantel and try to approach them from a slightly different angle, and that's how we all gradually move forward.
I'll wrap up by saying, though, that the entire book was almost worth reading for the quote at the top of this post, which really resonated with me in terms of what I see as we watch female leaders earn their positions of power then work to figure out how to handle them. The character of Faith, who the quote refers to, was also the most interesting in the book. This quote really made me think about something I saw repeated a lot in praise of the film Wonder Woman, that part of what made the character and story so moving for many people and women in particular was how Wonder Woman approached the world from a strong but also a tender place, and exhibited her power with that balance shifting back and forth throughout the story which made the character feel very much like the powerful women we see and appreciate most in real life. Faith was certainly a realistic character in that way as well, and I found her journey through feminism and the flaws and strengths she possessed to be thought-provoking even after reading.
You may like The Female Persuasion if you like:
Character-driven novels such as Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, or even Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler.