Do female artists treat men better than male artists treat women? Take, for example, the second season of Jessica Jones, which plants you in a deeply reverse-Bechdel-test world where minutes, if not hours, can pass before two men are seen onscreen together, let alone talking about someone or something besides a woman. (They are usually talking, as they should be, about Jessica Jones.)
Even there, male characters are developed and intelligent, with their own goals, thoughts, and feelings. By contrast, any secondary female character in a recent DC or Marvel movie would love an arc as nuanced and interesting as Jessica’s neighbor, Malcolm.
Take Meg Wolitzer’s highly anticipated twelfth novel, The Female Persuasion, which is being trumpeted as a specifically feminist triumph, a novel that’s “right for the #MeToo moment,” and that “captures our era’s gender politics.” Yes, it is, and it does. But those aren’t the only reasons you should read it.
Topicality aside, it’s simply a great book. Part of that greatness might also be its biggest weakness, depending on the reader. The novel is committed to a holistic sense of balance — to showing us the inner lives of a full ensemble of characters in colorful, compelling depth. Greer Kadetsky might be the maypole around which the other characters weave their ribbons of story, but Wolitzer isn’t only interested in showing us this flawed young woman’s arc as everything else fades to black around her. Everyone gets a turn.
You may be deeply absorbed in Kadetsky’s story, or that of Faith Frank, a famous feminist of the previous generation whose encounter with Kadetsky sparks the younger woman into actions that ripple through the rest of the novel. But Wolitzer won’t let you disappear into those two perspectives—too many other characters have something to say.
You’ll find the narrative taking an unexpected turn into the mind of Kadetsky’s best friend from college, her high school boyfriend, or even a morally gray venture capitalist with a penchant for infidelity coupled uncomfortably with a romantic streak. By the time you get to the end, you won’t just understand the main characters, but the parents of the main characters, how their family structures contributed to who they’ve become. And while the men in the novel spend less time on the stage than Kadetsky and Frank, the spotlight shines into their souls just as brightly. In fact, the most heartbreaking turn of events—the moment when the stakes escalate not just to life or death, but a cruelly inventive combination of the two—has nothing to do with either Kadetsky or Frank at all.
Whether you view these explorations of character as fascinating or distracting will largely determine how much you enjoy the book. They do slow down the story’s urgency, which hangs on a second-page reference that notes Kadetsky “meeting Faith Frank was the thrilling beginning of everything. It would be a very long time before the unspeakable end.” But urgency is not really the point of a novel like this. Crisp language that observes and describes characters with empathy, wit, and insight—that’s where The Female Persuasion excels.
College students getting ready for Friday night: “She watched the girls standing with heads tilted and elbows jutted, pushing in earrings, and the boys aerosolizing themselves with a body spray called Stadium, which seemed to be half pine sap, half A.1. sauce.” High school sweethearts: “Their sexual activity was a mix of gasping thrill and excruciating misfire.” A neglected childhood: “All that reading took. It became as basic as any other need. To be lost in a novel meant you were not lost in your own life, the drafty, disorganized, lumbering bus of a house, the uninterested parents.”
So, do female artists treat men better than male artists treat women? There’s too much art in the world to say. But we can at least notice that great art, like Jessica Jones, like The Female Persuasion, doesn’t use its feminist lens to neglect building complex characters of any gender. The men of this book aren’t all villains any more than the women are all heroes, even when gendered power structures and struggles take center stage in the plot. Kadetsky in particular makes unwise decisions, which is a plus — characters who only make smart choices put their readers to sleep. Wolitzer is a great writer, and great writers don’t fall for the trap of simplicity. They recognize that simplicity in fiction is a failure of imagination.
All writing is political, but writing that’s only political is a failure of another kind. Wolitzer’s novel succeeds on every level by refusing the easy road for the complex one, giving us characters who clash, wound, disappoint, panic, recover, and thrive—life in all its messy modern glory.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Published April 3, 2018
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Bestselling author of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Out now: THE ARCTIC FURY. Up next: SCORPICA (The Five Queendoms #1, 2.22.22, as G.R. Macallister).