It isn’t always pretty when idealism collides with the real world.
Passionate belief in a cause can shape a person’s life — but not always in the direction she expects. Inspiration and disappointment are two sides of one coin, and betrayal can come from the least likely sources.
Two women, one young, one older, grapple with those realities in Meg Wolitzer’s wise and absorbing new novel, The Female Persuasion.
Faith Frank is a feminist icon in her 60s, Greer Kadetsky a college student when they meet after a talk Faith gives on campus in 2006. Faith founded Bloomer magazine back in the 1970s and was just "a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem in fame." Greer has only a foggy idea who she is; her friend Zee, an activist in feminist and gay rights causes, brings her to the older woman’s talk.
But when the charismatic Faith speaks, Greer is galvanized. When Faith hands her a business card, it might be just one more fan encounter for the older woman, but for the younger one it’s life-changing.
Greer thought she had her life planned. She and her boyfriend, Cory Pinto, both exceptional students, connected as youngsters over their shared feeling that they were odd kids out. Cory was born Duarte Pinto Jr., son of immigrant parents, and renamed himself after the kid on Boy Meets World to seem more American.
Greer’s parents were late-stage hippies in the ’80s when they met as part of a "community of people living on a retrofitted school bus in the Pacific Northwest." They never really got off that bus; when their only child starts getting her college rejection/acceptance letters, she discovers they dropped the ball on filling out financial aid applications, and she’ll have to settle for a lesser college.
So the first part of her plan with Cory — attending the Ivy League together — is scuttled, but they still plan for a millennials’ idyll in a cute apartment in Brooklyn. "At the end of an industrious day, he would come home from microfinance, and she would come home from nonprofit" and they’ll share beers on the fire escape.
After graduation, Greer pulls out that business card and gets an appointment to interview for a job at Bloomer — only to arrive just as the magazine folds. But Faith creates a new platform for her activism, a foundation called Loci that supports feminist conferences and projects — and is funded by a billionaire ex-lover of Faith’s named Emmett Shrader. A rapacious capitalist and serial seducer, Shrader seems born to be Faith’s nemesis, but they have a singular connection.
Greer’s job at Loci is entry level but puts her in a position to be mentored by her idol: "Faith was still a person of gravitas and glamour, intelligence, cheekbones, warmth, greatness, all of which was once again exciting." It also gets her close enough to see the cogs turning beneath the sleek surface of Loci, and she won’t always like what she sees.
Cory, meanwhile, gets a ridiculously high-paying job — but then tragedy strikes his family, and the whole plan for the future disintegrates.
Despite its politics, The Female Persuasion is far from being a polemic. Wolitzer devotes substantial portions of the book not only to Greer’s and Faith’s backstories, but to those of Cory and Zee, Greer’s college friend, all warmly told.
She’s deft with telling details, like Greer in her early days at college, overwhelmed by other people after a lonely childhood: "She watched the girls standing with heads tilted and elbows jutted, pushing in earrings, and boys aerosolizing themselves with a body spray called Stadium, which seemed to be half pine sap, half A.1. sauce."
Years later, she observes Greer in a relationship with a colleague: "Sometimes one of them would slam his or her laptop shut, and the other one would follow, the laptops making a decisive sound like two car doors closing, a big part of foreplay these days."
We see the foundations of Faith’s feminism in her youthful experience of taking a friend who is bleeding out after an illegal abortion to the hospital. "In the ER, one nurse in particular gave Annie the leper treatment. ... ‘I could have you thrown in the slammer, did you know that? I could call the police right this minute, you little harlot.’?"
And there’s Faith decades later, powerful but still vulnerable to criticism: "Loci was doing good business, and naturally people were writing things on Twitter like #whiteladyfeminism and #richladies, and the hashtag that for some reason irritated Faith most, #fingersandwichfeminism."
Among the most heartbreaking details is Cory’s response to the death of someone dear to him. He designs a video game called SoulFinder, "a sort of mortality-based witness protection program. ... If only you knew where to find them. If only you knew where to look."
In some ways The Female Persuasion seems very much of the moment, from Greer’s nasty #MeToo moment in college to Loci’s projects to rescue human trafficking victims. But what’s really striking is how nostalgic much of it seems. Although most of the plot takes place no more than a decade ago, it’s lit with the warm glow of an era of progressive politics, when it felt as if feminism, gay rights and other human rights were blooming, if not fully realized then on the path.
It does not feel like that now. The novel’s final chapter is a coda several years later, in the wake of what one character calls "the big terribleness."
"?‘The thing that really gets me,’ she said, ‘is that the worst kind of man, the kind that you would never allow yourself to be alone with, because you would know he was a danger to you, was left alone with all of us.’?"
Women’s work is truly never done.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.