Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion"

by Jesse Kornbluth of HeadButler

The problem with “the book of the moment” these days is that a moment lasts only 30 seconds
— and then the next “book of the moment” comes along, and the next and the next, and as you start to lose track, you have to ask why you should care about any of them.

Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion,” much anticipated and just published, is very much “the book of the moment.” 

But I’d bet my hands: It will last.

Click to order The Female Persuasion: A Novel.
It’s funny that I should say this, because I vastly prefer short books, and “The Female Persuasion” has 464 pages. Another negative: it deals with male oppression and female subjugation, female friendship and female ambition, youthful Idealism and adult careerism, and every other #RightNow topic that has provided full employment for pundits. And then, what could easily be a third strike: it is almost entirely about privileged white people. 

And yet I opened “The Female Persuasion” in the morning and didn’t put it down until I’d finished it — the ultimate compliment. The reason has nothing to do with politics and issues and everything to do with the people. Simply, I fell in love with them. I felt I knew them. And I wanted to know them better, even when their foibles and flaws made me want to yell “Turn back!” at them, as if they were characters in a horror movie. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] 

This is a richly populated novel, but it’s basically the story of two women: Greer Kadetsky and Faith Frank. We meet Greer as a freshman in the class of 2010 at a Connecticut college that’s far from her first choice. Faith is a feminist magazine pioneer and icon, still sexy in tall suede boots at 63. When Faith comes to speak at her school, Greer will fall under her spell; she’ll move to New York and join Faith’s cause. A dozen years later, she’ll write a book and her own fame will begin.

When I open a thick novel, my first thought is to find the 75-to-100 pages I wouldn’t miss if they were cut. Here those pages are front-loaded: Greer’s romance with “the Portuguese kid with the house-cleaner mom and the upholsterer dad” who goes to Princeton, and her betrayal of a close friend. I was antsy: I wanted to get to the Faith/Greer story — the interview, the mentorship, Greer’s rise and rise, how Faith made her way when she was Greer’s age, how Faith found the money for her foundation and how, as it usually does, money changes everything — and that doesn’t start until page 112. 

But as Wolitzer explains in a New York Times profile, “This is a moment where everything’s just being shaken up, realigning and changing really fast, like in a snow globe. There’s such heat around everything, and it’s really hard, at least for me personally, to work in that kind of state. But as a novelist, I feel lucky that I can traffic in nuance. I’m more interested in looking at how things change over time, at how people try and sometimes fail to make meaning out of their lives. In this moment of the hot take, I’m the master of the warm take.”

Oh me of little faith! Everything that annoyed or bored me in the beginning came to be important toward the end. Along the way, Wolitzer tuned me to the rhythms of triumph and defeat — to the rhythms of life. Like the way in offices your colleagues are “people with coffee on the breath and personal habits that you would learn, as though you were lovers and not just people who worked in the same place.” How “men give women the power that they themselves don’t want.” How even the most famous and fabulous become “fragile and bony as anyone, and as mortal, and as compromised.” How maybe we come to see there are two kinds of feminists, “the famous ones and everyone else, all the people who just go quietly and do what they’re supposed to do, and don’t get a lot of credit for it, and don’t have anyone telling them they’re doing an awesome job.”

As you get deeper into the book, Wolitzer’s panorama expands, becomes vast. In the 20s, there are “crowded lives.” With age, a broken-hearted man finds a “replacement” woman. Self-preservation becomes as important as generosity. And, in the end, we replace each other. “That’s what we do; and we’re supposed to do it, over and over.”

I’ve taken some care here not to spoil your pleasure by saying who and what and why in the story of Greer and Faith and the women and men in their lives. I leave those discoveries to you… and to the people you will tell to read “The Female Persuasion” when you finish. It’s that kind of book. 

EXCERPT: THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK 

Greer Kadetsky met Faith Frank in October of 2006 at Ryland College, where Faith had come to deliver the Edmund and Wilhelmina Ryland Memorial Lecture; and though that night the chapel was full of students, some of them boiling over with loudmouthed commentary, it seemed astonishing but true that out of everyone there, Greer was the one to interest Faith. Greer, a freshman then at this undistinguished school in southern Connecticut, was selectively and furiously shy. She could give answers easily, but rarely opinions. “Which makes no sense, because I am stuffed with opinions. I am a piñata of opinions,” she’d said to Cory during one of their nightly Skype sessions since college had separated them. She’d always been a tireless student and a constant reader, but she found it impossible to speak in the wild and free ways that other people did. For most of her life it hadn’t mattered, but now it did.

So what was it about her that Faith Frank recognized and liked? Maybe, Greer thought, it was the possibility of boldness, lightly suggested in the streak of electric blue that zagged across one side of her otherwise ordinary furniture brown hair. But plenty of college girls had hair partially dipped the colors of frozen and spun treats found at county fairs. Maybe it was just that Faith, at sixty three a person of influence and a certain level of fame who had been traveling the country for decades speaking ardently about women’s lives, felt sorry for eighteen year old Greer, who was hot faced and inarticulate that night. Or maybe Faith was automatically generous and attentive around young people who were uncomfortable in the world.

Greer didn’t really know why Faith took an interest. But what she knew for sure, eventually, was that meeting Faith Frank was the thrilling beginning of everything. It would be a very long time before the unspeakable end.

She had been at college for seven weeks before Faith appeared. Much of that time, that excruciating buildup, had been spent absorbed in her own unhappiness, practically curating it. On Greer’s first Friday night at Ryland, from along the dormitory halls came the grinding sounds of a collective social life forming. It soon became an ambient roar, as if there were a generator somewhere deep in the building. The class of 2010 was starting college in a time of supposed coed assertiveness—a time of female soccer stars and condoms zipped confidently inside the pocket of a purse, the ring shape pressing itself into the wrapper like a gravestone rubbing.

As everyone on the third floor of Woolley Hall got ready to go out, Greer, who had planned on going nowhere, but instead staying in and doing the Kafka reading for her freshman literature colloquium, watched. She watched the girls standing with heads tilted and elbows jutted, pushing in earrings, and the boys aerosolizing themselves with a body spray called Stadium, which seemed to be half pine sap, half A.1. sauce. Then, overstimulated, they all fled the dorm and spread out across campus, heading toward various darkish parties that vibrated with identically shattering bass.

Meg's pup Jet. Interests: things made of rawhide; fiction; feminism.
Woolley was old and decrepit, one of the original buildings, and the walls of Greer’s room, as she’d described them to Cory the day she arrived, were “the disturbing color of hearing aids.” The only people who remained there after the exodus that night were an assortment of lost, unclaimed souls. There was a boy from Iran who appeared very sad, his eyelashes clustered together in little wet starbursts.

He sat in a chair in a corner of the first floor lounge with his computer on his lap, gazing at it mournfully. When Greer entered the lounge—her room, a rare single, was too depressing to stay in all evening, and she’d been unable to concentrate on her book—she was startled to realize that he was merely looking at his screen saver, which was a picture of his parents and sister, all of them smiling at him from far away. The family image swept across the computer screen and gently bounced against one side, before slowly heading back.

How long would he watch his bouncing family? Greer wondered, and though she didn’t miss her own parents at all—she was still angry with them for what they had done to her, which had resulted in her ending up at Ryland—she felt sorry for this boy. He was away from home on another continent, at a place that perhaps someone had mistakenly told him was a first rate American college, a center of learning and discovery, practically a School of Athens nestled on the East Coast of the US. After managing the complicated feat of getting here, he was now alone and quickly becoming aware that this place actually wasn’t so great. And besides that, he was also pining for his family. She knew what it was like to miss someone, for she missed Cory so continually and pressingly that the feeling was like its own shattering bass vibrating through her, and he was only 110 miles away at Princeton, not across the world.

Greer’s sympathies kept collecting and expanding, while in the doorway of the lounge appeared a very pale girl who stood clutching her midsection and asking, “Do either of you have something for diarrhea?”

“Sorry, no,” said Greer, and the boy just shook his head.

The girl accepted their responses with a grim weariness, and then for lack of anything else to do she sat down too. Curling through the porous walls came the smell of dairy butter plus tertiary butylhydroquinone, seductive but inadequate to the task of cheering anyone up. Moments later this was followed by the source of the smell, a big plastic tub of popcorn conveyed by a girl in a robe and slippers. “I got the kind with movie theater butter,” she said to them as an added inducement, holding out her bowl.

Apparently, Greer thought, these are going to be my people, tonight and perhaps every weekend night. It made no sense; she didn’t belong with them, and yet she was among them, she was one of them. So she took a hand span’s worth of popcorn, which was so wet that her fingers felt as if she’d draped them through soup. Greer was about to sit down and attempt a conversation; they could tell one another about themselves, how bleak they felt. She would stay in this lounge, even though Cory had encouraged her earlier on Skype not to stay in tonight, but to go out to a party or some sort of campus event. “There has to be something going on,” he’d said. “Improv. There’s always improv.” It was her first weekend at college, and he thought she should just try.

But she’d said no, she didn’t really want to try, she would rather get through it her own way. During the week she would be a super student, working in a carrel in the library, her head bent over a book like a jeweler with a loupe. Books were an antidepressant, a powerful SSRI. She’d always been one of those girls with socked feet tucked under her, her mouth slightly open in stunned, almost doped up concentration. All written words danced in a chain for her, creating corresponding images as clear as the boy from Iran’s bouncing family. She had learned to read before kindergarten, when she’d suspected that her parents weren’t all that interested in her.

Then she’d kept going, plowing through children’s books with their predictable anthropomorphism, heading eventually into the strange and beautiful formality of the nineteenth century, and pushing both backward and forward into histories of bloody wars, into discussions of God and godlessness. What she responded to most powerfully, sometimes even physically, were novels. Once Greer read Anna Karenina for such a long, unbroken bout that her eyes grew strained and bloodshot, and she had to lie in bed with a washcloth over them as if she herself were a literary heroine from the past. Novels had accompanied her throughout her childhood, that period of protracted isolation, and they would probably do so during whatever lay ahead in adulthood. Regardless of how bad it got at Ryland, she knew that at least she would be able to read there, because this was college, and reading was what you did.
Meg with her editor, old pals, and readers at the Montclair Literary Festival two weeks ago.
But tonight, books were unseductive, and so they remained untouched, ignored. Tonight college was only about partying, or sitting in a bland dormitory lounge, bookless and self-punishing. Bitterness, she knew, could give you an edge. Unlike pure unhappiness, bitterness had a taste. This display of bitterness would be for no one but herself. Her parents wouldn’t witness it; even Cory Pinto, down at Princeton, wouldn’t. She and Cory had grown up together, and had been in love and entwined since the year before; and though they’d vowed that throughout the four years of college they would Skype with each other all the time and borrow cars to visit each other at least once a month, they wouldn’t be Skyping anymore tonight. He had gotten dressed in a good sweater and gone out to a party. Earlier, she’d watched as the Skype version of him came close to the screen, all pore and nostril and rock ledge forehead.

“Try to have a good time,” he’d said, his voice stuttering slightly because of a glitchy system configuration. Then he turned and held up a finger to John Steers, his off camera roommate, as if telling him: Give me two more seconds. I just have to deal with this.

Greer had quickly ended the call, not wanting to be seen as “this”—someone to deal with, the needy one in the relationship. Now she sat in the Woolley lounge, lowering and lifting her hand into and out of the popcorn, looking around at the tacked up posters for the Heimlich maneuver and indie band auditions and a Christian Students picnic in West Quad, come rain or shine. A girl walked by the room and stopped; later on she admitted that she had done this more out of kindness than interest. She resembled a slender, sexy boy, perfectly made, with a Joan of Arc aesthetic that immediately read as gay. She took in the sight of the bright room of lost people, frowned in deliberation, and then announced, “I’m going to check out a few parties, if anyone wants to come.”

The boy shook his head and returned to the image on his screen. The girl with the popcorn just kept eating, and the girl in distress was now debating with someone on her cell phone about whether or not she should go to Health Services. “I know that on the plus side they could help me,” she was saying. “But on the minus side I have no idea where they’re located.” Pause. “No, I cannot call Security and have them escort me there.” Another pause. “And anyway, I think it might just be nerves.”

Greer looked at the boyish girl and nodded, and the girl nodded back, turning up the collar of her coat. In the dim hall, they pushed through the heavy fire doors. Only when Greer was outside in the wind, feeling it ripple along the thin material of her shirt, did she remember she was coatless. But she felt certain that she shouldn’t break the moment by asking if she could run up to the third floor and get her coat.

“I thought we could sample a few different things,” said the girl, who introduced herself as Zee Eisenstat, from Scarsdale, New York. “It will be like a test kitchen for college life.” 

“Exactly,” said Greer, as though this had been her plan too.

Zee led them to Spanish House, a freestanding clapboard building on the edge of campus. As they walked in, a boy in the doorway said, “Buenas noches, señoritas,” and handed them glasses of what he called mock sangria, though Greer got into a brief conversation with another resident of the house about whether the m ock sangria was perhaps actually not mock at all.

“Licor secreto?” Greer asked quietly, and the girl looked at her hard and said, “Eres inteligente.”

Eres inteligente. For years it had been enough to be the intelligent one. All that had meant, in the beginning, was that you could answer the kinds of questions that your teachers asked. The whole world appeared to be fact based, and that had been a relief to Greer, who could dredge up facts with great ease, a magician pulling coins from any available ear. Facts appeared before her, and then she simply articulated them, and in this way she became known as the smartest one in her class.

Later on, when it wasn’t just facts that were required, it got so much harder for her. To have to put yourself out there—your opinions, your essence, the particular substance that churned inside you and made you who you were—both exhausted and frightened Greer, and she thought of this as she and Zee headed for their next social destination, the Lamb Art Studio. How Zee, a freshman, knew about these parties was unclear; there had been no mention of them in the Ryland Weekly Blast.

The air in the studio was sharp with turpentine, which almost served as a sexual accelerant, for the art students, all upperclassmen, seemed unusually attracted to one another. They were twinned and tripled, with skinny bodies and paint spattered pants and drawn on hands and ear gauges and unusually bright eyes. In the middle of the white wooden floor, a girl was being carried around on a guy’s shoulders, crying, “BENNETT, STOP IT, I’M GOING TO FALL OFF AND DIE, AND THEN MY PARENTS WILL SUE YOUR VISUAL ARTS ASS!” He—Bennett—carried her in staggered circles while he was still sufficiently young and powerful and Atlas like to hold her like this, and while she was still light enough to be held.
The art students were into one another and one another only. It was as if Greer and Zee had stumbled upon a subculture in the clearing of a forest. “The male gaze” kept getting mentioned, though at first Greer heard it as “the male gays,” but then finally she understood. She and Zee slipped away not long after arriving, and once outside again they were almost immediately joined by another freshman who confidently and unapologetically attached herself to them. She said her name was Chloe Shanahan, and she seemed to aspire toward a certain mallish brand of hotness, with spiky heels and Hollister jeans and a Slinky load of thin silver bracelets. She had wound up in the art studio by mistake, she told them; she was actually looking for Theta Gamma Psi.

“A frat?” Zee said. “Why? They’re so disgusting.”

Chloe shrugged. “They apparently have a keg and loud music. That’s all I need tonight.”

Zee looked at Greer. Did she want to go to an actual frat party? She wanted it less than most things; but she also didn’t want to be alone, so maybe she did want it. She thought of Cory leaning against a wall at a party right this minute, laughing at something. She saw an array of people looking up at him—he was the tallest person in any room—and laughing back.

Greer, Zee, and Chloe were an unlikely trio, but she had heard this was typical of social life in the first weeks of college. People who had nothing in common were briefly and emotionally joined, like the members of a jury or the survivors of a plane crash. Chloe took them across West Quad, and then they looped around behind the fortress of the Metzger Library, which was all lit up and poignantly empty, like a 24 hour supermarket in the middle of the night.

The Ryland website showed a few nominal photos of students in goggles doing something with a torch in a laboratory, or squinting over a whiteboard jammed with calculations, but the rest of the photos were social, cornball: an afternoon of ice skating on a frozen pond, a classic “three in a tree” shot of students chatting beneath the nexus of a spreading oak. In fact, the campus only had one such tree, which had been over photographed into exhaustion. In daylight, students straggled to class along the paths of the inelegant campus, frequently wearing pajamas under their jackets, like the members of a good natured bear family in a children’s book.

When nighttime fell, though, the college came into its own. Their destination tonight was a large, corroding frat house thundering with sound. Greek life, the college catalogues had called this. Greer imagined IMing Cory later, writing, “greek life: wtf? where is aristotle? where is baklava?” But suddenly their usual kind of shared, arch commentary that kept them both entertained was irrelevant, for he wasn’t here, not even close, and now she was inside a wide doorway with these two randomly chosen girls, heading toward the noxious smells and the inviting ones, and, indirectly and eventually, toward Faith Frank.