2018 has been such a fantastic reading year for me (so far), even though there have been plenty of misses among the hits. Today I’m going to talk about a miss, but somehow thinking about how little I liked this book has also sparked new appreciation for my reading approach this year: trying all sorts of new things. Sometimes I find authors or subjects or series that only teach me what I DON’T want to read, but that’s valuable too. So I picked up Barnes & Noble’s first ever book club selection, Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion. It has an eye-catching cover, a feminist/finding-oneself story, and a tie to one of my favorite bookstores. But I didn’t like it.
About the book: Greer is a bitter college freshman who lost out on an Ivy league education. Instead she’s at her safety school, not expecting much. On the first weekend, she checks out some parties with a soon-to-be friend, and experiences a sexual assault. The college takes as much notice of the man as it will, and Greer wonders what she could possibly do next to stand up for herself and women everywhere. Then she attends a speech given by a renowned feminist from years past, and finds her inspiration. She makes a valuable contact and learns to use her outside voice to spread her ideas to the women who need a vote of confidence as she once did. In addition to her political activism, she’s also balancing relationships with a wayward boyfriend, a queer best friend, a disappointing relationship with her parents, and a role model who’s grayer than she seemed.
I’m embarrassingly new to feminism, but even to me this book seems dated. Maybe ten years ago it would have made a bigger splash, but despite living under a rock I’ve heard this commentary before. Much of the book takes place prior to 2015, and even when the plot approaches present day, it doesn’t become more timely. Rarely have I been so bored while reading, though it wasn’t a slow read. The book seemed longer than it needed to be, but I fell easily into the writing and kept up my pace. The story itself was just too bland to make any sort of impression on me beyond the desire for something more.
“I think there are two kinds of feminists. The famous ones, and everyone else. Everyone else, all the people who just quietly go and do what they’re supposed to do, and don’t get a lot of credit for it, and don’t have someone out there every day telling them they’re doing an awesome job.”
But I will say that The Female Persuasion‘s characters are extremely well-developed. The characters are the strength of this book, though their stories didn’t always interest me enough to believe I really needed to be learning so much about them. Each character feels like a real and distinct person, and their lives intersect in interesting ways. They are not “good” or “bad” people, they’re just people, in a way that I wish more books were able to capture. The chapters utilize a third-person narration that focuses on different major characters at different points in the plot. Greer’s perspective comes up most often, but every other perspective interested me more than hers. Cory’s chapters were my favorite, perhaps because his character sees the most change, and positive views of male feminism are always intriguing. As I’m currently in my twenties myself, I also appreciated seeing these people trying to put their lives together, and watching that happen in the moments when they weren’t paying attention.
“Your twenties were a time when you still felt young, but the groundwork was being laid in a serious way, crisscrossing beneath the surface. It was being laid even while you slept. What you did, where you lived, who you loved, all of it was like pieces of track being put down in the middle of the night by stealth workers.”
Though some might say the beauty of this book is its ability to turn full circle, I was disappointed to see the story end on a new cycle of the same process it opened with. There are differences between the characters, of course, and perhaps it is depictive of slow progress in feminism, but a new young idealist with the potential to surpass Greer the way that Greer surpasses Faith made most of Greer’s accomplishments (not to mention Faith’s) seem futile to me. Inspiring future generations is important, but inspiring them to fight the same fight that may never be won? That’s a cynical view, I know, but I ended this book feeling pretty depressed about the progress women have made and will continue to make– this book left me worried that I would not see substantial change within my lifetime, and that’s not the way I want to feel while/after reading a feminist book. That’s certainly not the only possible interpretation of The Female Persuasion‘s ending, but with Faith constantly criticized for old-time, privileged white lady views, seeing an up-and-comer have a moment of awareness during Greer’s moment of success made me think that Greer would end up the same way– renowned for a single moment and then forever shelved as old news. Everyone does what they can, but this book left me feeling like sometimes all we can do is not enough.
I so want it to be enough.
“Women in powerful positions are never safe from criticism. The kind of feminism I’ve practiced is one way to go about it. There are plenty of others, and that’s great. There are impassioned and radical young women out there, telling multiple stories. I applaud them. We need them. We need as any women fighting as possible. I learned early on from the wonderful Gloria Steinem that the world is big enough for different kinds of feminists to coexist, people who want to emphasize different aspects of the fight for equality. God knows the injustices are endless, and I am going to use whatever resources are at my disposal to fight in the way I know how.”
My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I had seen Meg Wolitzer’s books around before Barnes and Noble announced this book club selection, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read them. Still, I do believe you have to try something once before you can say you don’t like it, so I’m glad I did pick up one of Wolitzer’s books, and now I’m confident that I don’t need to read any more of them. Her covers are often gorgeous, but that’s not enough for me. I’ll be looking elsewhere for feminist lit in the future.
- If you do like Wolitzer’s style of character-driven feminism (which I know and understand why some readers do; I’m grateful for every reader who finds inspiration in books, even if not in the same books I find it in), you should check out Naomi Alderman’s The Power. The Power is a sci-fi/futuristic book that gives women the upper hand (literally) in world power, and explores through several diverse characters what might happen to the world as we know it if women gained dominance over men.
- I also recently read Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which is a great example of feminist lit that’s also light enough for beach reading and features some truly phenomenal characters. This is also (perhaps primarily) an LGBTQ+ book, if you’re looking for an extra layer of equality advocacy. It’s a story about a fictional celebrity who’s willing to do whatever it takes to chase her dreams and make it easier for others to chase theirs.
What’s your current favorite feminist book?
The Literary Elephant