Greer Kadetsky is in need of courage. A shy but driven freshman at middling Ryland College who can’t help but remind people that she got into Yale (only without sufficient aid), Greer “could give answers easily, but rarely opinions.’’ When a friend tries to convince her that a nonconsensual groping by a frat boy constitutes sexual assault, Greer answers: “ ‘I don’t know’ . . . aware of a kind of familiar vagueness sweeping around her. She sometimes said ‘I don’t know,’ even when she did know. What she meant was that it was more comfortable to stay in vagueness than to leave it.”
Greer’s particular confusion — the terror she feels on the one hand at naming her preferences, from the political to the sexual, and her longing on the other to do so boldly — may feel familiar to Meg Wolitzer aficionados. Greer most conspicuously calls to mind the heroine of Wolitzer’s 2003 novel “The Wife,’’ who as a “too soft-spoken, too mild” Smith student in 1956, is “plucked” out of the crowd by her male professor for reasons she cannot quite understand. This cross-novel resonance, far from being tiresome, is one of the beauties of Wolitzer’s work, and, one could argue, one of its subjects: that though our lives may in new decades assume new forms, we return time and again to the old questions.
Wolitzer’s new novel, “The Female Persuasion,’’ opens in 2006. And it’s not a professor doing the plucking but an iconic feminist aptly named Faith Frank, who — only “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem in fame” — hands Greer her business card after giving a talk at Ryland. It’s a small gesture, but it feels to Greer, who “knew shamefully little’’ about Frank, like a “prize, a reminder not to stay hot-faced and tiny-voiced.” And it sets in motion the rest of this exuberant, sprawling novel, which may be Wolitzer’s most ambitious yet, even as one of its projects is to cast a harsh light on ambition itself.
Struggling alongside Greer to find their own paths in the world are her high school sweetheart Cory, a Princeton student who is lanky, committed, and just as confused as Greer; and her best friend at Ryland, Zee, a born activist whose abundant gifts aren’t of the academic variety. Some of the best scenes in this book are from Cory’s or Zee’s perspectives, as Wolitzer follows them through college and into their 20s, where their stories gain a thrilling — if also heartbreaking — momentum.
Greer, after graduation, goes to work at Frank’s nonprofit. She builds her life around the charismatic older woman, letting herself be seduced to the point where one evening, faced with a steak Faith has grilled — “it was a dark reddish blue inside, unnatural, even perverse” — Greer surrenders her vegetarianism rather than disappoint her mentor.
Wolitzer is known as a seriously funny chronicler of both the minutiae and sweep of modern American life, capable of storytelling as moving as it is acerbic, and all this is on fine display in “The Female Persuasion,’’ from the disastrous “Learning Octagon” network of schools where Zee teaches (and which awkwardly numbers only seven after one is shut due to lead paint) to the pornography-inspired language a young Cory tries on Greer during their first experimentations with sex.
But Wolitzer is also a masterful architect. In every scene she is laying the groundwork for what’s to come, so that plot developments that might feel jolting in less capable hands register as natural and inevitable. As her narrative lens pans to Frank herself — and beyond — Wolitzer always keeps her central questions in sight: What does it take to be (or at least appear) powerful? What kind of power actually makes a difference in the world?
It’s notable that the talk Frank gives at the start of the book is not great. And Wolitzer knows it. More than once we’re made to understand that Faith is not “a rare or particularly original thinker,” that her renown has grown less from what she says than how she says it. Greer, too, comes to learn — painfully — the limits of speech-making. In Zee’s words: “I think there are two kinds of feminists. The famous ones, and everyone else . . . all the people who just quietly go and do what they’re supposed to do.”
In the end, though it can and should be read as a timely response to our current moment, Wolitzer’s book is less about politics than the personal, a case for the human over the heroic. She steals her title, after all, from Frank’s 1984 “manifesto,” which taught there was “more to being female than padded shoulders and acting tough.’’ This theft is a nod to what women learn and yes, sometimes steal, from one another, and how these transactions shape who we become. But it’s also Wolitzer pointedly writing something better than a manifesto. And if at times her characters can sound a little too on-point, if her ending is a little too tidy, these faults are easy to forgive, because what she has written is not a speech but a novel, one that’s big, necessary, and utterly persuasive.
THE FEMALE PERSUASION
By Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead, 456 pp., $28
Anna Solomon is the author of two novels, the recently released “Leaving Lucy Pear’’ and “The Little Bride.” Follow her on Twitter @SolomonAnna.