Meg Wolitzer Is the Novelist We Need

  • The cover of “The Female Persuasion,” by Meg Wolitzer. MUST CREDIT: Riverhead

The Washington Post
Friday, April 13, 2018

There are many pleasures and pricks of the conscience to be found in Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Female Persuasion. It’s the sort of book that comes along in too few authors’ careers — one that makes the writer’s intellectual project snap into sharp focus, and with it, the case that their artistry is not merely enjoyable but truly important.

Though Wolitzer has been publishing novels since 1982, I first encountered her work in 2013, at a moment when a new wave of feminism seemed to be cresting, and with it, heightened standards for what it meant to be a feminist in good standing. Rather than marinate in this state of perpetual anxiety, Wolitzer’s novels frequently take as their core assumption that her characters will fail to live up to their high-minded ideals.

The real question is what comes after those failures. Do we allow our lives to calcify around our secrets and compromises, like a burl that interrupts the grain of a tree? Can we seek forgiveness, and will we receive it? And where might the lessons we learn lead us?

This set of questions has never been clearer than in The Female Persuasion, which follows a young woman named Greer Kadetsky through her feminist awakening. After Greer is groped during her freshman year in college and radicalized by the efforts that she and her peers take to see the man punished, she meets the magnetic second-wave feminist Faith Frank and eventually goes to work for her at a new foundation Faith has formed with backing from a hedge-fund billionaire. The foundation is, inevitably, compromised by its corporate sponsorship, and eventually, Greer finds herself in a highly compromising position, forcing her to confront difficult questions about purity, sustainability and her own professional rise.

Greer is hardly the first heroine of a Wolitzer novel to face such a fateful decision, though for others, the major junctures in their lives are clear only in retrospect.

In The Wife, Joan Castleman agrees to help her husband, Joe, with his first novel, hoping that securing his professional reputation will bring an equilibrium to her marriage that will allow her to pursue her own writing. Neither of them expects that they will spend their careers with Joan as the brilliant ventriloquist and Joe as the puppet through which she speaks.

Rosalyn Mellow, who co-authors a book called Pleasuring with her husband Paul in The Position, sells America on a vision of sexually liberated married intimacy that is disrupted when she falls in love with the book’s illustrator. The women in The Ten-Year Nap drift out of the workforce after their children are born or adopted, allowing the prospect of someday renewing their careers to lull them into complacency. And Ash Wolf, one of the main characters in The Interestings, forges a career as a feminist theater director even as she engages in a conspiracy to protect her brother’s whereabouts after one of her closest friends accuses him of sexual assault.

It’s easy, if risky, to get smug about the choices Wolitzer’s characters make. The women she writes about are (mostly) white and well-educated, and financially they range from “managing but not destitute” to “astonishingly wealthy.”

Maybe these women aren’t ideologically committed enough — except Rosalyn, Ash, Faith and Greer spend their entire careers devoted to sex education, changing the representation of women in theater, and rescuing women and girls in desperate circumstances. Maybe they’re too quick to compromise — but Joan is up against the profound sexism of mid-century literary culture, the women in The Ten-Year Nap face real conundrums around child care, Rosalyn makes a terrible choice between doing a diminished version of her work and not doing it at all, and Greer actively removes herself from complicity in Faith’s lie. Maybe they’re too easily swayed by personal connections — yet how sure are you about the choices you’d make to preserve your marriage, defend your vulnerable child or protect your beloved brother while you both are teenagers?

When feminism seems set on consuming itself in the quest for perfection and ideological purity, Wolitzer’s novels function as an empathy-building exercise. If you emerge from them certain of your own superiority, you’ve missed the point. Far more often, when I finish one of Wolitzer’s books, I feel grateful that I’ve been spared the sort of choices her characters must navigate, or freshly uncertain about how I’ll handle the decisions that still lie ahead of me.

Wolitzer’s writing is a quiet testament to the idea that feminism is a political project rather than a self-help manual: It’s something we continually refine together, rather than a cheat code to life’s most fraught dilemmas. Insisting that there is always a clear and obvious choice that real feminists must make cheapens the complexity of everyday life and plays down the magnitude of the task before us as we seek to reorder a world that is deeply rooted in our assumptions about gender.

The dilemmas Wolitzer’s characters confront may not seem world-changing. And yet their struggles to resolve those challenges and to discern the right thing to do remind us of how far we’ll have to go, the mistakes we’ll inevitably make along the way, and the kindness we’ll need to show ourselves in order to survive the journey.