I have previously received PR products from Penguin. The Female Persuasion is published by a Penguin imprint.
TW: illegal unsafe abortion, pro-lifers, sexual assault, death of a child (sibling), mentions of human trafficking.
The Female Persuasion has been on my TBR for a long time now (along with 90% of the books I purchase), so I decided it was finally time to get round to it. I didn’t know that much about it going into it, because I’d looked it up and bought it so long ago, but I pretty much figured it would be about feminism, and the rainbow cover was also giving me LGBT vibes. And I was right on both cases.
I do actually want to start by saying that I have a very mixed opinion on this book. First off, the protagonist’s name was a blatantly obvious reference to Germaine Greer, who is not someone I have a particularly high opinion of due to her views on transgender women. Faith Frank, an older, somewhat controversial public feminist and Greer’s mentor figure, could also well be considered influenced by Germaine Greer (alliterative initials as well as the matching profile), so I was really hoping this would be addressed somehow in the book. Unfortunately, it was not. At a couple of points in the book, Faith Frank bemoans people using terms associated with white feminism to describe her work, but the feminism here is far from intersectional.
The feminist messaging of this book is also painfully unsubtle, to the point of being cringe-inducing on several occasions, which drew me out of the narrative. Some of the book’s events, as well, I struggled to believe — namely the way Greer comes to work for Faith. It just felt a bit far-fetched to me, and I wished the book had stayed on a smaller scale, with Greer orbiting Faith somehow without ever actually becoming a part of her world. But then I would have read a different book entirely. Putting this aside, then, let’s have a quick chat about the rest of the plot (saying this as though I’m actually talking to someone and not just monologuing…).
Far-fetchedness aside, the plot was pretty engaging, and it was strong enough to make me want to keep reading. I did really like the big moral dilemma reveal towards the end (not to give too much away), and it was this part of the book that actually had some kind of interesting message, for me. The Cory plot was the best part of the book, for me (an irony I’ll discuss further in a moment). It was heartbreaking, tragic, believable and human. I found it really compelling, perhaps especially in contrast to the Greer and Faith main plot line where it’s all big business and Important Deals, because then set against that is a subplot of something very down-to-earth and emotionally absorbing. I felt a similar way about the experience Greer’s college friend Zee has when she briefly works as a teacher.
Cory Pinto, the one non-white and non-female character that manages to actually get a look in in this book dominated by white women, was actually the most interesting character in the book. Aside from having what I felt was the most compelling and emotionally believable and engaging plot line, he was also one of the best developed characters, while some of the women felt rather flat beside him. While characters don’t need to experience tragedy in order to become interesting and well-developed, it certainly is a good way to explore deeper elements of the character that may otherwise go unnoticed, which is something Wolitzer does really well with Cory. Greer, in comparison, seemed rather flat. She wasn’t a particularly strong character, in my opinion. She came off as a bit weak, easily persuaded, and rather selfish.
Basically, Cory saved this book for me. The writing itself I have little to say about: aside from the unsubtlety of the messaging, it flowed well, but it didn’t excite me. I’m certainly not sure if I would have actually finished this book if it weren’t for Cory’s plotline that develops through the middle of the book and remains present in a more minor form through to the end. Zee’s character was also interesting to me, though I wish she had been given a bit more time on the page to explore her back story, because the taste of her past we got was really interesting, and I do think that could have been great if it had been developed or fleshed out a little bit more. It’s unusual that I find a book where the secondary characters engage me much more than the protagonists, but Zee and Cory were definitely the best, and most interesting characters in this book for me.
Am I glad I read this? I’m not sure. I was hoping to take more away from it, but it read as rather preachy in places, and there was a lack of intersectionality and open-mindedness that I expected to see but didn’t. At one point Faith Frank mentions she feels she is being replaced somewhat by a younger generation of feminists who are implied to be more progressive (again, I felt a pretty uncomfortable parallel between Faith Frank’s brand of feminism and Germaine Greer’s trans-exclusionary feminism here). I hoped that Greer would go on to join one of these groups, leading to an opening for discussion on gender and intersectional feminism, but alas.