Ambitious, insightful tome on feminism




By Meg Wolitzer

Random House/ Paperback/ 494 pages/ $27.82/Books Kinokuniya/

3.5 stars

Touted as a must-read for the #MeToo movement, American author Meg Wolitzer's latest offering, The Female Persuasion, opens with a frat boy brazenly grabbing college freshman Greer Kadetsky's breast at a party.

Despite multiple testimonies of assault from other women, he is given a slap on the wrist more like Stanford rapist Brock Turner than disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Of course, Greer is angry at the system. But a chance encounter with second-wave feminist Faith Frank at a college lecture is the catalyst for her to grow from an apolitical, timid teenager to a confident mover and shaker who learns "not to stay hot-faced and tiny-voiced".

Wolitzer, who has explored the intricacies of women's inner lives in earlier novels like The Interestings and The Wife, examines the relationship between female mentor and mentee in Persuasion.

In doing so, she discusses what it is like to be a feminist today, with all the progress and problems the women's movement of the Sixties and Seventies has brought, and how women should navigate a world where some of them now sit at the table, but still do not feel that they quite belong.

The reader sees this as Greer first seeks shelter and growth by working for her mentor, Faith, who has set up a foundation to fund women's causes.

But she grows disillusioned with the summits they hold, where celebrity and champagne mix freely as attendees talk about empowerment and less privileged women in far-flung countries, but do little to try to bring about change.

As Faith and Greer find their politics diverging, the cracks begin to show. As a character notes, 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."

Persuasion is an ambitious tome that runs the gamut of feminist topics: rape and sexual assault, the wage gap, pornography and so on.

But one wonders if Wolitzer ought to have committed herself to a stronger stance on these issues and how people navigate feminism today.

The politics of modern feminism are raised, but quickly glossed over - for example, the problematic, feminism-lite summits become the butt of Twitter jokes online, but nothing more is said.

Where she shines, however, is in creating intensely relatable characters. Greer is painfully flawed and the fact that she primarily uses her activist platform to find fame and fortune makes her unlikable, but also recognisable.

In contrast, her college BFF Zee is a true-blue passionate soul who sees activism as a real model for change.

She leaves her paralegal job, but soon grows disillusioned with her work as a teacher, though she later finds satisfaction as a traumatologist, where she communicates directly with those who need help.

Arguably, the biggest feminist in this novel is not a woman, but Greer's college boyfriend Cody Pinto. After a family tragedy, he leaves his high-flying job in finance to take care of his mother - a move which baffles Greer. But as Greer's mother points out, this makes him quite a feminist after all, as he puts aside his career to be there, where it counts.

Over the course of the novel, the characters betray, admire and find faith in one another. Through their relationships, the reader delves headlong into what it means to be a woman, a feminist, a mentor, a friend, a daughter, a girlfriend or a wife - roles that create self-hood and identity.

It is in these ties that people practise what they preach and find themselves. For this insight alone, this novel is worth reading.

If you like this, read:The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (Scribner, 2004, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), a tale about the breakdown of a marriage over several decades.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2018, with the headline 'Ambitious, insightful tome on feminism'. Subscribe