Meg Wolitzer’s eighth work is largely a campus novel, with a litany of sociological concerns — namely class, gender, feminism and sexuality. Greer Kadetsky, child of startlingly inept parents, turns down Yale’s acceptance for financial reasons and enrolls at the far less prestigious Ryland College, class of 2010. At Ryland, she befriends Zee Eisenstat, a fiercely political lesbian and animal rights activist. Greer’s boyfriend, Cory Pinto, son of Portuguese immigrants, has a complicated trajectory that takes him from Princeton to Manila to cleaning houses in his hometown. Faith Frank, renowned author, feminist and onetime speaker at Ryland, eventually hires Greer to work for her.
Wit and description are a few of Wolitzer’s many strengths. “Plenty of college girls had hair partially dipped the colors of frozen and spun treats found at county fairs,” she writes. At Princeton, recruiters on campus are “a flock of peacocks set loose on the grounds of an estate.” Such moments brighten prose that is often exposition-heavy, perhaps because Wolitzer slogs through the childhoods of all four central characters.
The stories of Greer and Cory, who grow up on the same street, are organically intertwined, but the histories of Faith and Zee often read as filler. Zee, from Scarsdale, N.Y., the child of two judges, sheds her given name, Franny, in adolescence because she doesn’t think it suits her. Faith, a twin, is raised in the Bensonhurst neighborhood by loving, conservative parents who allow her brother to go away for college but insist that she stay in Brooklyn. Her brief affair with a married man (and future billionaire) Emmett Shrader has long-lasting consequences.
Crises arise, some more compelling than others. When a family tragedy brings Cory home from his consulting job in Manila, the writing is urgent and full of sorrow. In an exquisitely drawn scene, he does heroin with his cousin, Sab, a person he’d once dismissed.
Greer’s crises are about Loci, the women’s foundation at which she works, when her idealism and her lionization of Faith Frank are compromised. Greer’s refusal to help Zee get a job at Loci — a fact she hides from Zee — is also portrayed as a great betrayal, though against the scope of the novel’s events, the failure to hand-deliver a letter in the age of e-mail is perhaps deterrent, but not an insurmountable obstacle. Occasional plot devices aside, the work masterfully captures the highs, lows and unexpected twists of the idealistic life.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in LennyLetter, Narrative, Crazyhorse, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
The Female Persuasion
By: Meg Wolitzer.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 456 pages, $28.