THE FEMALE PERSUASION, by Meg Wolitzer. Riverhead, 456 pp., $28.
For those who have been eagerly awaiting Meg Wolitzer’s 10th adult novel, “The Female Persuasion,” the fun starts as early as the dedication page — which lists eight female literary role models and mentors, among them Rosellen Brown, Nora Ephron, Mary Gordon and the author’s mother, Hilma Wolitzer, who raised her in Syosset in the 1960s and ’70s. You don’t call out your teachers by name unless you plan to do them proud. This dedication goes right to the theme of the book — mentorship and influence among women.
From there, Wolitzer entertains us with her signature witty phrasemaking. Our protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, is starting her freshman year at an undistinguished college in Connecticut. On her first Friday night, “from along the dormitory halls came the ambient roar of a collective social life forming, as if there were a generator deep in the building.” The boys there use a body spray called Stadium, “which seemed to be half pine sap, half A.1. sauce,” and the dorm walls are “the disturbing color of hearing aids.” After seven weeks of misery, a famous feminist named Faith Frank comes to speak on campus.
Wolitzer has a good time with this character. In the 1970s, we learn, she founded a magazine called Bloomer, “a less famous little sister to ‘Ms.,’ ” but nowadays as “thin as a manual that came with a small appliance.” Frank herself has been described as “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem in fame” and, like Steinem with her aviator sunglasses, has a sexy fashion signature — in her case, high suede boots in a variety of colors. After college, she worked as a cocktail waitress in Vegas, where she had an interlude with a married businessman who decades later had “given her a foundation” — quite a controversial provenance for a feminist organization.
With the encouragement of her new friend Zee, Greer approaches Faith Frank in the ladies room after the lecture, and they have a moment. Faith bestows on Greer her business card. After graduation, this connection will lead to a position with Faith’s foundation. Meanwhile, Greer’s longtime boyfriend, Cory Pinto, has landed a fancy job in finance in the Philippines. Flashbacks covering the early days of their relationship are particularly well done; Wolitzer’s skill with young characters brings to mind her delightful middle-grade novel, “The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.” Launched on their career paths, Greer and Cory are, as Greer’s mom predicts, “twin rocket ships” — at least at first. But Greer’s now-best-friend Zee is having a harder time finding meaningful work. When she asks Greer to give Faith Frank a letter she has written asking for a job, an important subplot is kicked off. I was sure I had predicted the outcome of this one, but I was wrong. Wolitzer is trickier than that.
Along the same lines, the novel eschews a simplistic, idealized view of mentorship and influence, or of friendship. Elements of complication — competitiveness, resentment, selfishness, rationalization and moral compromise — run side by side with nobler instincts, handled in a way that doesn’t make the characters less likable, only more real. One small but potent example occurs when Faith impulsively invites the whole staff out to her country house for the weekend.
“ ‘I assume that no one has a problem with meat?’ Faith said. ‘If you do, speak now or forever hold your peace.’ . . . Greer fervently did not want to disappoint her, so she didn’t say anything.” Soon enough, the committed vegetarian is cutting into an “enormous slab of steak, which was already pooling in blood as if it were the head of a person who just jumped off a roof. . . . To eat meat when you hated it, when you hadn’t eaten it for four years, was an aberration, nearly a form of cannibalism. But also, she told herself, it was an act of love.”
“The Female Persuasion” is the best kind of social novel — a brilliant book about relationships set against a backdrop of principles, movements and change. Hilma, Mary, Rosellen and Nora in heaven must be very pleased.