The Female Persuasion

A Novel
Hardcover

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From the New York Times-bestselling author of The Interestings, an electric, multilayered novel about ambition, power, friendship, and mentorship, and the romantic ideals we all follow deep into adulthood, not just about who we want to be with, but who we want to be.

To be admired by someone we admire - we all yearn for this: the private, electrifying pleasure of being singled out by someone of esteem. But sometimes it can also mean entry to a new kind of life, a bigger world.

Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman when she meets the woman she hopes will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a central pillar of the women's movement for decades, a figure who inspires others to influence the world. Upon hearing Faith speak for the first time, Greer- madly in love with her boyfriend, Cory, but still full of longing for an ambition that she can't quite place- feels her inner world light up. And then, astonishingly, Faith invites Greer to make something out of that sense of purpose, leading Greer down the most exciting path of her life as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory and the future she'd always imagined.

Charming and wise, knowing and witty, Meg Wolitzer delivers a novel about power and influence, ego and loyalty, womanhood and ambition. At its heart, The Female Persuasion is about the flame we all believe is flickering inside of us, waiting to be seen and fanned by the right person at the right time. It's a story about the people who guide and the people who follow (and how those roles evolve over time), and the desire within all of us to be pulled into the light.

Praise

Praise for The Interestings:

“Remarkable . . . [The Interestings’s] inclusive vision and generous sweep place it among the ranks of books like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. The Interestings is warm, all-American, and acutely perceptive about the feelings and motivations of its characters, male and female, young and old, gay and straight; but it’s also stealthily, unassumingly, and undeniably a novel of ideas. . . . With this book [Wolitzer] has surpassed herself.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A victory . . . The Interestings secures Wolitzer’s place among the best novelists of her generation. . . . She’s every bit as literary as Franzen or Eugenides. But the very human moments in her work hit you harder than the big ideas. This isn’t women’s fiction. It’s everyone’s.” —Entertainment Weekly (A)

“The big questions asked by The Interestings are about what happened to the world (when, Jules wonders, did ‘analyst’ stop denoting Freud and start referring to finance?) and what happened to all that budding teenage talent. Might every privileged schoolchild have a bright future in dance or theater or glass blowing? Ms. Wolitzer hasn’t got the answers, but she does have her characters' mannerisms and attitudes down cold.” —The New York Times

“Wolitzer is almost crushingly insightful; she doesn’t just mine the contemporary mind, she seems to invade it.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“A sprawling, marvelously inventive novel . . . ambitious and enormously entertaining.” —The Washington Post

“A supremely engrossing, deeply knowing, genius-level enterprise . . . The novel is thick and thickly populated. And yet Wolitzer is brilliant at keeping the reader close by her side as she takes her story back and forth across time, in and out of multiple lives, and into the tangle of countless continuing, sometimes compromising, conversations.” —Chicago Tribune

“It’s a ritual of childhood—that solemn vow never to lose touch, no matter what. And for six artsy teenagers whose lives unfold in Wolitzer’s big-hearted, ambitious new novel, the vow holds for almost four decades.” —People

“[The Interestings] soars, primarily because Wolitzer insists on taking our teenage selves seriously and, rather than coldly satirizing them, comes at them with warm humor and adult wisdom.” —Elle

“In Meg Wolitzer’s lovely, wise The Interestings, Julie Jacobson begins the summer of ’74 as an outsider at arts camp until she is accepted into a clique of teenagers with whom she forms a lifelong bond. Through well-tuned drama and compassionate humor, Wolitzer chronicles the living organism that is friendship, and arcs it over the course of more than thirty years.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“Wonderful.” —Vanity Fair

Excerpt

Greer Kadetsky met Faith Frank in October of 2006 at Ryland College, where Faith had come to deliver the Edmund and Wilhelmina Ryland Memorial Lecture; and though that night the chapel was full of students, some of them boiling over with loudmouthed commentary, it seemed astonishing but true that out of everyone there, Greer was the one to interest Faith. Greer, a freshman then at this undistinguished school in southern Connecticut, was selectively and furiously shy. She could give answers easily, but rarely opinions. “Which makes no sense, because I am stuffed with opinions. I am a piñata of opinions,” she’d said to Cory during one of their nightly Skype sessions since college had separated them. She’d always been a tireless student and a constant reader, but she found it impossible to speak in the wild and free ways that other people did. For most of her life it hadn’t mattered, but now it did.
 
So what was it about her that Faith Frank recognized and liked? Maybe, Greer thought, it was the possibility of boldness, lightly suggested in the streak of electric blue that zagged across one side of her otherwise ordinary furniture‑brown hair. But plenty of college girls had hair partially dipped the colors of frozen and spun treats found at county fairs. Maybe it was just that Faith, at  sixty‑three a person of influence and a certain level of fame who had been traveling the country for decades speaking ardently about women’s lives, felt sorry for eighteen‑year‑old Greer, who was  hot‑faced and inarticulate that night. Or maybe Faith was automatically generous and attentive around young people who were uncomfortable in the world.
 
Greer didn’t really know why Faith took an interest. But what she knew for sure, eventually, was that meeting Faith Frank was the thrilling beginning of everything. It would be a very long time before the unspeakable end.
 
She had been at college for seven weeks before Faith appeared. Much of that time, that excruciating buildup, had been spent absorbed in her own unhappiness, practically curating it. On Greer’s first Friday night at Ryland, from along the dormitory halls came the grinding sounds of a collective social life forming.  It soon became an ambient roar, as if there were a generator somewhere deep in the building. The class of 2010 was starting college in a time of supposed coed assertiveness—a time of female soccer stars and condoms zipped confidently inside the pocket of a purse, the ring shape pressing itself into the wrapper like a gravestone rubbing. As everyone on the third‑floor of Woolley Hall got ready to go out, Greer, who had planned on going nowhere, but instead staying in and doing the Kafka reading for her freshman literature colloquium, watched. 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. Then, overstimulated, they all fled the dorm and spread out across campus, heading toward various darkish parties that vibrated with identically shattering bass.
 
Woolley was old and decrepit, one of the original buildings, and the walls of Greer’s room, as she’d described them to Cory the day she arrived, were “the disturbing color of hearing aids.” The only people who remained there after the exodus that night were an assortment of lost, unclaimed souls. There was a boy from Iran who appeared very sad, his eyelashes clustered together in little wet starbursts. He sat in a chair in a corner of the first‑floor lounge with his computer on his lap, gazing at it mournfully. When Greer entered the lounge—her room, a rare single, was too depressing to stay in all evening, and she’d been unable to concentrate on her book—she was startled to realize that he was merely looking at his screen saver, which was a picture of his parents and sister, all of them smiling at him from far away. The family image swept across the computer screen and gently bounced against one side, before slowly heading back.
 
How long would he watch his bouncing family? Greer wondered, and though she didn’t miss her own parents at all—she was still angry with them for what they had done to her, which had resulted in her ending up at Ryland—she felt sorry for this boy. He was away from home on another continent, at a place that perhaps someone had mistakenly told him was a first‑rate American college, a center of learning and discovery, practically a School of Athens nestled on the East Coast of the US. After managing the complicated feat of getting here, he was now alone and quickly becoming aware that this place actually wasn’t so great. And besides that, he was also pining for his family. She knew what it was like to miss someone, for she missed Cory so continually and pressingly that the feeling was like its own shattering bass vibrating through her, and he was only 110 miles away at Princeton, not across the world.
 
Greer’s sympathies kept collecting and expanding, while in the doorway of the lounge appeared a very pale girl who stood clutching her midsection and asking, “Do either of you have something for diarrhea?”
 
“Sorry, no,” said Greer, and the boy just shook his head.
 
The girl accepted their responses with a grim weariness, and then for lack of anything else to do she sat down too. Curling through the porous walls came the smell of dairy butter plus tertiary butylhydroquinone, seductive but inadequate to the task of cheering anyone up. Moments later this was followed by the source of the smell, a big plastic tub of popcorn conveyed by a girl in a robe and slippers. “I got the kind with movie theater butter,” she said to them as an added inducement, holding out her bowl.
 
Apparently, Greer thought, these are going to be my people, tonight and perhaps every weekend night. It made no sense; she didn’t belong with them, and yet she was among them, she was one of them. So she took a hand span’s worth of popcorn, which was so wet that her fingers felt as if she’d draped them through soup. Greer was about to sit down and attempt a conversation; they could tell one another about themselves, how bleak they felt. She would stay in this lounge, even though Cory had encouraged her earlier on Skype not to stay in tonight, but to go out to a party or some sort of campus event. “There has to be something going on,” he’d said. “Improv. There’s always improv.” It was her first weekend at college, and he thought she should just try.
 
But she’d said no, she didn’t really want to try, she would rather get through it her own way. During the week she would be a super‑student, working in a carrel in the library, her head bent over a book like a jeweler with a loupe. Books were an antidepressant, a powerful SSRI. She’d always been one of those girls with socked feet tucked under her, her mouth slightly open in stunned, almost doped‑up concentration. All written words danced in a chain for her, creating corresponding images as clear as the boy from Iran’s bouncing family. She had learned to read before kindergarten, when she’d suspected that her parents weren’t all that interested in her. Then she’d kept going, plowing through children’s books with their predictable anthropomorphism, heading eventually into the strange and beautiful formality of the nineteenth century, and pushing both backward and forward into histories of bloody wars, into discussions of God and godlessness. What she responded to most powerfully, sometimes even physically, were novels. Once Greer read Anna Karenina for such a long, unbroken bout that her eyes grew strained and bloodshot, and she had to lie in bed with a washcloth over them as if she herself were a literary heroine from the past. Novels had accompanied her throughout her childhood, that period of protracted isolation, and they would probably do so during whatever lay ahead in adulthood. Regardless of how bad it got at Ryland, she knew that at least she would be able to read there, because this was college, and reading was what you did.
 
But tonight, books were unseductive, and so they remained untouched, ignored. Tonight college was only about partying, or sitting in a bland dormitory lounge, bookless and self-punishing. Bitterness, she knew, could give you an edge. Unlike pure unhappiness, bitterness had a taste. This display of bitterness would be for no one but herself. Her parents wouldn’t witness it; even Cory Pinto, down at Princeton, wouldn’t. She and Cory had grown up together, and had been in love and entwined since the year before; and though they’d vowed that throughout the four years of college they would Skype with each other all the time and borrow cars to visit each other at least once a month, they wouldn’t be Skyping anymore tonight. He had gotten dressed in a good sweater and gone out to a party. Earlier, she’d watched as the Skype version of him came close to the screen, all pore and nostril and rock‑ledge forehead.
 
“Try to have a good time,” he’d said, his voice stuttering slightly because of a glitchy system configuration. Then he turned and held up a finger to John Steers, his off‑camera roommate, as if telling him: Give me two more seconds. I just have to deal with this.
 
Greer had quickly ended the call, not wanting to be seen as “this”—someone to deal with, the needy one in the relationship. Now she sat in the Woolley lounge, lowering and lifting her hand into and out of the popcorn, looking around at the tacked‑up posters for the Heimlich maneuver and indie band auditions and a Christian Students picnic in West Quad, come rain or shine. A girl walked by the room and stopped; later on she admitted that she had done this more out of kindness than interest. She resembled a slender, sexy boy, perfectly made, with a Joan of Arc aesthetic that immediately read as gay. She took in the sight of the bright room of lost people, frowned in deliberation, and then announced, “I’m going to check out a few parties, if anyone wants to come.”
 
The boy shook his head and returned to the image on his screen. The girl with the popcorn just kept eating, and the girl in distress was now debating with someone on her cell phone about whether or not she should go to Health Services. “I know that on the plus side they could help me,” she was saying. “But on the minus side I have no idea where they’re located.” Pause. “No, I cannot call Security and have them escort me there.” Another pause. “And anyway, I think it might just be nerves.”
 
Greer looked at the boyish girl and nodded, and the girl nodded back, turning up the collar of her coat. In the dim hall, they pushed through the heavy fire doors. Only when Greer was outside in the wind, feeling it ripple along the thin material of her shirt, did she remember she was coatless. But she felt certain that she shouldn’t break the moment by asking if she could run up to the third floor and get her coat.
 
“I thought we could sample a few different things,” said the girl, who introduced herself as Zee Eisenstat, from Scarsdale, New York. “It will be like a test kitchen for college life.”
 
“Exactly,” said Greer, as though this had been her plan too.
 
Zee led them to Spanish House, a freestanding clapboard building on the edge of campus. As they walked in, a boy in the doorway said, “Buenas noches, señoritas,” and handed them glasses of what he called mock‑sangria, though Greer got into a brief conversation with another resident of the house about whether the m ock‑sangria was perhaps actually not mock at all.
 
Licor secreto?” Greer asked quietly, and the girl looked at her hard and said, “Eres inteligente.”
 
Eres inteligente. For years it had been enough to be the intelligent one. All that had meant, in the beginning, was that you could answer the kinds of questions that your teachers asked. The whole world appeared to be fact‑based, and that had been a relief to Greer, who could dredge up facts with great ease, a magician pulling coins from any available ear. Facts appeared before her, and then she simply articulated them, and in this way she became known as the smartest one in her class.
 
Later on, when it wasn’t just facts that were required, it got so much harder for her. To have to put yourself out  there—your opinions, your essence, the particular substance that churned inside you and made you who you were—both exhausted and frightened Greer, and she thought of this as she and Zee headed for their next social destination, the Lamb Art Studio. How Zee, a freshman, knew about these parties was unclear; there had been no mention of them in the Ryland Weekly Blast.
 
The air in the studio was sharp with turpentine, which almost served as a sexual accelerant, for the art students, all upperclassmen, seemed unusually attracted to one another. They were twinned and tripled, with skinny bodies and paint‑spattered pants and drawn‑on hands and ear gauges and unusually bright eyes. In the middle of the white wooden floor, a girl was being carried around on a guy’s shoulders, crying, “BENNETT, STOP IT, I’M GOING TO FALL OFF AND DIE, AND THEN MY PARENTS WILL SUE YOUR VISUAL ARTS ASS!”  He—Bennett—carried her in staggered circles while he was still sufficiently young and powerful and Atlas‑like to hold her like this, and while she was still light enough to be held.
 
The art students were into one another and one another only. It was as if Greer and Zee had stumbled upon a subculture in the clearing of a forest. “The male gaze” kept getting mentioned, though at first Greer heard it as “the male gays,” but then finally she understood. She and Zee slipped away not long after arriving, and once outside again they were almost immediately joined by another freshman who confidently and unapologetically attached herself to them. She said her name was Chloe Shanahan, and she seemed to aspire toward a certain mallish brand of hotness, with spiky heels and Hollister jeans and a Slinky‑load of thin silver bracelets. She had wound up in the art studio by mistake, she told them; she was actually looking for Theta Gamma Psi.
 
“A frat?” Zee said. “Why? They’re so disgusting.”
 
Chloe shrugged. “They apparently have a keg and loud music. That’s all I need tonight.”
 
Zee looked at Greer. Did she want to go to an actual frat party? She wanted it less than most things; but she also didn’t want to be alone, so maybe she did want it. She thought of Cory leaning against a wall at a party right this minute, laughing at something. She saw an array of people looking up at him—he was the tallest person in any room—and laughing back.
 
Greer, Zee, and Chloe were an unlikely trio, but she had heard this was typical of social life in the first weeks of college. People who had nothing in common were briefly and emotionally joined, like the members of a jury or the survivors of a plane crash. Chloe took them across West Quad, and then they looped around behind the fortress of the Metzger Library, which was all lit up and poignantly empty, like a 24‑hour supermarket in the middle of the night.
 
The Ryland website showed a few nominal photos of students in goggles doing something with a torch in a laboratory, or squinting over a whiteboard jammed with calculations, but the rest of the photos were social, cornball: an afternoon of ice skating on a frozen pond, a classic “three in a tree” shot of students chatting beneath the nexus of a spreading oak. In fact, the campus only had one such tree, which had been over‑photographed into exhaustion. In daylight, students straggled to class along the paths of the inelegant campus, frequently wearing pajamas under their jackets, like the members of a good‑natured bear family in a children’s book.
 
When nighttime fell, though, the college came into its own. Their destination tonight was a large, corroding frat house thundering with sound. Greek life, the college catalogues had called this. Greer imagined IMing Cory later, writing, “greek life: wtf? where is aristotle? where is baklava?” But suddenly their usual kind of shared, arch commentary that kept them both entertained was irrelevant, for he wasn’t here, not even close, and now she was inside a wide doorway with these two randomly chosen girls, heading toward the noxious smells and the inviting ones, and, indirectly and eventually, toward Faith Frank.

Reader's Guide

1. The Female Persuasion is about the relationship between a young woman and her mentor. What does Greer learn from Faith, and vice versa? In what ways do Greer and Faith surprise or disappoint each other? Have you ever had someone come into your life and change it forever?

2. Greer and Cory are high school sweethearts, but their romance is much deeper than their age might suggest. How do the social settings of their hometown and their families turn them into the couple that they are? Discuss the class differences between Greer’s family and Cory’s. How do family origins affect the characters’ ambitions?

3. Cory is entirely consumed by grief after a family tragedy. Talk about the ways in which grief can change a person’s goals. How does it alter Cory’s life path? What do you think about Greer’s reaction to Cory’s grief-induced changes? Is she right to give him space? Is he right to push her away? Could this moment in their relationship have gone any other way?

4. Compare Zee’s childhood with Greer’s. Have their backgrounds influenced the people they have grown up to be, or the decisions they make, or the ambitions they follow?

5. What do you think about Greer’s treatment of Zee and its effect on their friendship and their lives? Do you recognize Greer’s emotional response to the idea of sharing her job with Zee? Were you surprised by Zee’s reaction when she found out what really happened?
6. How has feminism changed between Faith’s youth and Greer’s youth? What do their generational differences show about the nature of progress? Discuss the portrayal of women’s advocacy as it evolves over the course of the book.

7. Faith Frank and Emmett Schrader have a long and complicated history. Do you empathize with Emmett’s character at any point? Do you judge Faith for accepting his funding?

8. At the end of the novel, Greer is forced to make a difficult decision about the Ecuador project. Do you think she makes the right choice? Would Faith have made the same choice if their roles were reversed?
9. Think about the way Faith and Greer’s relationship comes to an end. Do you think it’s for the best? Was it inevitable? By the end of the book, did you still love Faith Frank the way Greer did, despite her flaws, or had your opinion changed? Do you think it’s possible for Greer to move past her love for Faith, or will she always be haunted by it?

10. Wolitzer suggests that there are certain key people, events, and relationships that change the course of our lives. Obviously, Faith does this for Greer. Which other relationships might illustrate this kind of power? Think about Greer’s influence on Cory, and his on her; think about Zee’s life; think about Faith and Emmett. You might even think about Alby’s influence, long-term, on all of them.

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