Yes, Even Heroes Make Deals with the Devil: The Female Persuasion

Originally published April 2018

I was surprised the other day, when my teenaged daughter recoiled at the word, “feminist.”

We were much too busy with the day-to-day at that moment to get down into the weeds on exactly why she had that reaction, but I remember my initial reaction was surprise at the negative connotation she must associate with that word. Mostly, because I tend to think of her as a feminist ideal: Self-assured. A leader instead a follower. Engaged. Unafraid. And, when afraid, brave.

I wonder, “What messages is she getting about feminism? That it’s an ideology so absolute that the only way to embrace it is to accept all its tenets without the ability to consider what pieces of it work for her and what doesn’t?”

Maybe she should read “The Female Persuasion.”

Meg Wolitzer’s latest, clocking in at almost 470 pages, breaks down the mythologies that protectively surround heroes. At the center of the story is the relationship between Greer Kadetsky and Faith Frank —the former, a college student trying to find an identity, the latter, a hugely popular feminist with which Greer becomes instantly enamored. And, while the story of their relationship over the course of about a decade does dive deep into the ideal that is female empowerment, it’s also a rich exploration of what people are willing to sacrifice to get ahead.

Each of Wolitzer’s cast of characters comes to the table already well aware that life is not exactly fair. Grace arrives at college looking for a foundation, having been raised by what can be best described as parents devout to the free-range style of parenting. Disappointed but determined, a brush with a sexual harrasser and a new friend in Zee lead her into Faith Frank’s orbit. Grace’s determination to make a difference and make it with Faith leads her to cast aside one of her most meaningful relationships — to embrace the green-eyed monster residing in herself rather than helping her best friend.

Faith Frank has spent her life in pursuit of the feminist ideal, but not without paying a hefty toll when it comes to betraying the sisterhood. Her commitment to making lives better for all women often comes before commitment to friends, for example, using a friend’s horrid experience with abortion to propel her own narrative. Or, accepting financing from a man she knows to be less than pristine in the morality department.

Greer’s longtime love, Cory, has to come to terms with an unexpected turn in his life’s path, and the person that once was Greer’s confidence guru now finds himself shedding adolescent life goals and reimagining his future in the hometown both he and Greer hoped to escape.

The plot lines that follow these and other characters are so absorbing it’s impossible not to think about them long after you put the book down. And the overarching message about helping, lifting up and empowering women is pervasive, whether it’s Faith helping Greer find her voice, Greer helping marginalized women find theirs, Zee embracing her identity and finding her calling, Emmet (with all of his faults) still drawn to making a difference or even Cory learning more than he ever knew about himself while picking up the pieces for his mother.

But mostly, it’s just good writing — thought-provoking and immensely readable. Not quite Franzen length, but unless you have nothing but time on your hands, this one will take a couple of weeks to finish. And that’s OK, because this is a world you’ll want to cozy into for a spell.

P.S. I did ask my daughter about her thoughts on feminism and why the negative reaction. We came to the conclusion it could be a generational thing in that where my generation (I think) was taught feminism to be an ideal that promotes equality and empowerment, hers is one that hears that word more often associated with an extreme that sees itself as better than instead of equal to men — and that is something to which she doesn’t subscribe. But she did smile at my description of her as a feminist. Score one for Mom today.

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