Book Reviews

Meg Wolitzer

Riverhead Books

The light touch of this powerful woman was profound. So too was her choice to use her power in this tender way. Maybe that’s what we want from women, Greer thought… Maybe that’s what we imagine it would be like to have a woman lead us. When women got into positions of power, they calibrated and recalibrated tenderness and strength, modulating and correcting. Power and love didn’t often live side by side. If one came in, the other might go out.

                    from The Female Persuasion

 

  

 A Feminism for Our Time

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker identifies “feminization” as one of the key factors in the ongoing civilizing of humanity (“Since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower women tend to move away from the glorification of violence…”).

Meg Wolitzer’s new novel offers a feminism for our time. The story opens in 2006, when Greer Kadetsky and her high school sweetheart—a sweet-hearted boy named Cory—are the two shining stars in their graduating class.

Cory goes on to Princeton. Greer winds up at a middling college, where she is mauled at a frat party by Darren Tinzler. A number of first-year women have been the targets of his boorish behavior—or as he defends himself to the college administrators, his misguided charm offensive. He receives an administrative slap on the wrist in hopes he will in time reform and mature. (Alas, Tinzler doesn’t reform, doesn’t mature, eventually operating a revenge-porn website. Can’t win them all.)

Quiet and lacking in confidence and direction, Greer is also apolitical until she is befriended by Zee, a slender, sexy, androgynous political activist (“she looked like a hot butch Girl Scout or a hot femme Boy Scout.”) They attend a lecture by Faith Frank, a feminist icon of the 70s and 80s, and Greer’s life finds its direction and inspiration. Faith becomes her hero and her mentor.

After college, Greer gets a job working for Faith at the Loci Foundation, which is generously underwritten with corporate money and dedicated to empowering women around the world; Zee goes to work as a paralegal for a high-powered law firm she comes to despise (“they’re like the opposite of Doctors Without Borders. Lawyers Without Souls.”); and Cory puts aside his career in high finance when tragedy strikes his family, returning home to care for his mother, a more typically female sacrifice. In some ways, Cory is a true feminist for our times.

When Faith compromises too much for continued corporate support, Greer finds that her hero has feet of clay, as all heroes do. Disillusioned, Greer strikes out on her own and discovers her own voice—which is another purpose of heroes and mentors—and writes a feminist manifesto that becomes a huge national bestseller and earns her heaps of money. (This is how we know we are reading a work of fiction.)

The novel ends in the current political moment (“the big terribleness.”) Greer, like many Americans, “just could not believe what had happened to their country.” She participates in the Women’s March in DC, powered by “part endorphin rush, part despair.” Such is our time.

Like Pinker, Wolitzer suggests that in Women’s Liberation lies the hope for men’s liberation as well.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15-June 14, 2018.) Reprinted with permission.