The repercussions of #MeToo are continuing to reverberate throughout our political, social and political landscape. Formerly mighty men are falling and there’s a new crop of women artists asserting themselves in all kinds of ways.
In the wake of all that, reading Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Female Persuasion, is like coming back to an old friend. Meg Wolitzer has long been adept at dissecting and explaining the inner lives of women: in The Ten-Year Nap, mothers and children; in The Interestings, a group of close friends.
So while this are book feels of the moment, in fact begins with a campus assault, it goes much deeper, delving into the complex issues of mentors and intergenerational feminism.
Wolitzer tells the story of Greer Kadetsky, a college freshman who becomes politicized following the aforementioned campus assault, shortly after which she meets the feminist icon Faith Frank (think Gloria Steinem). Greer spends the next five years working for Faith’s foundation, coming into her own and finding her voice as a woman and an activist. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the dizzying highs and the often inevitable disappointments of mentorship.
It’s also the story of young love, Greer’s with her high school boyfriend, and what happens as both parties grow and go their own ways. Wolitzer writes about the intensity and discovery of these pivotal relationships with great insight and sensitivity.
Corporate corruption rears its ugly head in this story, making us examine what compromises we’re willing to make to achieve our ends. The scene where Greer confronts Faith about an ethical issue as Faith is mid–hair coloring, head bound with goop and foil, is both painful and priceless.
None of this stuff is new: we’ve all read hackneyed version of these themes. What sets Meg Wolitzer’s work apart is her characters. They practically vibrate off the page. Like the best fiction, this book made me think about parallels in my own life and even reflect on my history with new perspective. It’s the very best kind of fiction.
By coincidence I read another book book about a young woman coming of age (and way beyond) this month, this time a new voice. Jana Casale’s The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky (great title, no?) was a delightful surprise, introducing me to a writer from whom I hope we hear lots more.
The book opens with Leda, an introspective, insecure young woman and aspiring writer navigating her college years. At first, I was baffled by its quotidian detail, wondering where it was going.
As the novel progresses, we get to know this smart, funny person as she moves through life. And I mean her whole life, as she becomes a woman, wife, and mother and grows old.
There were several laugh-out-loud moments for me, as when Leda, during a trying family vacation with her husband and her toddler, dreams of having sex with Jesse from Breaking Bad: “that bothered her on a certain level, that here on vacation with her little family she was seeking refuge in the hands of an attractive fictional meth addict.”
Casale writes about the Barbie doll problem and competitive mothering and especially about body image with humor and keen perception. More than anything this book is about how the pieces of our lives fit together even as we’re unaware that this is so. And how we can be both liberated and trapped at the same time. As Casale tells us at the end of the novel, “the condition of womanhood is loneliness.” Believe me, it’s not as bleak as it sounds. In fact there’s more than a little cause for celebration.