The Female Persuasion begins with an event that might have gone unremarked on a few years ago, but in 2018, seems almost absurdly topical: a young student, Greer, is groped at a party. Several girls come forward with similar allegations, but the offender gets off with an apology. Greer is appalled; an activist spark is ignited.
“The word ‘uncanny’ comes up,” says Meg Wolitzer, of the timing of her novel’s release, given she started writing it four years ago. “But I don’t think that, because female power and misogyny are ideas that I – and most people I know – have been thinking about for a long time.”
Wolitzer did, however, do a few last-minute rewrites: excising a reference to the first female president (her editor sent back the manuscript with “a little tear” in the margin) and reworking the final scene to acknowledge “the big terribleness” (as a character dubs Mr Trump).
The opening is, in fact, just the motor for an encounter between Greer and an older, second-wave feminist, Faith Frank. Faith becomes her mentor, and Greer ends up working at her foundation. The stage is set for a generational clash of feminism styles, and the crashing of personal and political morality against strategic deception.
It feels as though she must be based on someone – but Wolitzer says not, because “the pleasure of invention” is too great for her to take shortcuts. “I come up with a series of problems I want to work on, and characters arrive to take them on,” she explains.
Yet her creations never feel like ciphers. While she may write on gender hot topics – returning to work after motherhood in The Ten Year Nap; literary-world sexism in The Wife – she also writes human beings you feel sure are walking around with you after you shut her books.
She has, she confesses, “real love” for her characters. “But you have to let them do things your readers will be mad at you for. And believe me, you hear from them – particularly if you kill a character. I had that with The Interestings.”
That was her break-out 2013 novel, which followed a group of friends throughout their lives. The Female Persuasion similarly traces decades of change. Wolitzer cites the British documentary series Seven Up! – revisiting children born in 1964 every seven years – as an inspiration, but thinks the novel is the ideal form for exploring the passage of time, “showing you how people become who they become”.
Several mentors, like Faith, helped her own “becoming”: she dedicates the book to eight women “who’d been incredibly helpful and generous”. Included among them: Nora Ephron.
“I don’t think either of us would have said ‘mentor’ at the time, but the first film she made [1992’s This is My Life] was based on my book, and she said: ‘Come along for the ride’. She was someone I wanted to show my work to, whose taste I trusted.”
Another name is Hilma Wolitzer – her mother, who became a writer later in life. “My mother showed me feminism in action,” she recalls.
“Reviews joked about her transformation: ‘housewife turns novelist’. I watched the way she was treated with condescension and sexism. And I saw her just do it anyway.”