It is October of 2006, and Greer Kadetsky is a freshman at the “undistinguished” Ryland College in Southern Connecticut. She is about to meet Faith Frank, but does not know it yet, nor does she know that out of everyone gathered at the lecture Faith will give, Greer will be the one to interest the famous Faith. Greer is a shy but opinionated young woman, and often vents to her boyfriend, Cory, about the disconnect between her beliefs and her ability to share them aloud.
These first lines of the novel are tinged with the presence of fate—the ambitious but repressed Greer is unhappy at her obscure and less-than-rigorous college, but by being in exactly the right place at the right time, her life is about to change in ways she can’t begin to anticipate.
Greer, looking back on this time in her life, wonders why Faith Frank “recognized and liked” her, Greer wonders if Faith, “at sixty-three a person of influence and a certain level of fame,” simply felt sorry for Greer. Regardless of what made Faith take an interest of her, Greer recalls the night she met Faith as “the thrilling beginning of everything,” and reflects on all that transpired between that beginning and the “unspeakable end” of her relationship with Faith.
Looking back on this moment many years later, Greer is still unable to discern what it was about her that Faith was drawn to. This suggests that even in the future, Greer is just as unsure about herself and her place in the world, in many ways, as she was at seventeen years old. This passage also foreshadows that Greer and Faith’s relationship will come to a dramatic and painful end one day, despite its auspicious beginnings.
Greer has been at Ryland College for seven weeks. She has spent much of that time lonely and unhappy—unable to make friends, longing for her boyfriend, Cory, who attends Princeton, and feeling distinctly out of place. One night, she sits in her dorm’s common room with a group of misfits, reflecting on how disastrous her time in school has been so far. Rather than attempt to make friends or take on new activities, Greer has spent most of her days seeking refuge in novels, which have brought her comfort in difficult times all throughout her life. Tonight, however, books are “unseductive,” and Greer feels bitter and lonely. Earlier, when she video chatted with Cory, he was on his way out to a party—Greer is disappointed that she is not going out, too.
Greer is having trouble adjusting to her new environment and making a community for herself. College is a big change for anyone, but Greer is particularly miserable and feels that she is missing out on something. Her discontent with Ryland and envy of her boyfriend, who attends the prestigious Princeton University, suggests that Greer thinks of herself as superior to her classmates and worthy of being at a “better” college.
Just at that moment, a girl walks past the common room—she has a “Joan of Arc aesthetic,” and Greer can tell that the girl is gay. The girl announces to the room of misfits that she is on her way to a few parties, and extends a blanket invite, which Greer accepts. Greer follows the girl out of the dorm and into the chilly evening. The girl introduces herself as Zee Eisenstat, and the two of them begin hopping from party to party. As they interact with many different people, Greer is anxious—she is book-smart, but her social skills are somewhat lacking. She is fearful of putting herself “out there” and revealing who she really is to people.
Greer finally makes an effort to find a community at Ryland by bravely attending parties with a near-stranger—something that is clearly out of her comfort zone. Contrasting with Greer’s shy, bookish nature, Zee is immediately characterized as a social butterfly. Zee introduces Greer to the college social world, foreshadowing when Zee later introduces Greer to the world of social activism and feminist thought.
At one party, which consists mainly of art students, a girl named Chloe offers to bring Zee and Greer with her to a fraternity party. The girls accept. At the frat house, Greer becomes slightly drunk and strikes up a conversation with a frat boy named Darren Tinzler. They discuss dorm life, and Greer reveals that she is unsatisfied with Ryland; she is supposed to be at Yale. Darren Tinzler moves closer and closer to Greer, and eventually sticks his hand up her shirt and squeezes her breast hard. Greer, in pain, pulls away, refusing his advance, but Darren grabs her arm and refuses to let her go. He tells Greer that she’s “not that hot” anyway, and then pushes her away.
In an attempt to step out of her comfort zone, Greer agrees to attend the fraternity party. Although Greer has been unhappy thus far at Ryland, she hasn’t felt scared, nervous, or unsafe at college. At the frat party, however, when she is sexually assaulted by Darren Tinzler, Greer realizes that she has been flung into a strange new world, which is often unfair, unjust, and unsafe. This moment serves as a catalyst for Greer’s passion for feminist activism.
Greer is stunned, but no one around her seems to have noticed what just happened. Panicked and upset, she leaves the party and walks back to her dorm in a daze. Over the next few days, Greer tells anyone who will listen—including Cory—about what happened to her at the party. Zee urges Greer to report Darren Tinzler to the university administration. Zee is “innately, bracingly political,” but Greer does not consider herself particularly political or interested in activism and is afraid to take any official action against Tinzler.
The assault clearly rattles Greer, but at this point, the assault is more of a source of anxiety than a source of political passion. In contrast with Zee, Greer has never been particularly political. However, Greer suddenly finds herself in a situation where her lack of power—and her lack of politics—are glaringly obvious for the first time in her life.
As the weeks go by, Greer hears about at least six other women who have been harassed or assaulted by Darren Tinzler, and their stories are remarkably similar to hers. One night, Darren attempts to assault a sophomore girl in the hallway of her dormitory, but she fights back. By the time campus security arrives at the scene, Tinzler is gone, but in the days following the incident, several girls begin to come forward with their stories. The college begrudgingly holds a disciplinary hearing, at which Greer testifies against Tinzler. As she does, she feels a kind of “fever” come over her, and she is enlivened by the act of speaking out about injustice.
Greer’s own assault is her first real exposure to social injustice and the exhilaration of feminist activism. In addition, it seems that Greer is strengthened by the community of women who have also been sexually assaulted by Darren. Greer is willing to demonstrate uncharacteristic bravery and speak out publicly against Darren because it will benefit herself and an entire group of women who have been treated unjustly. As Greer’s anger about the assault turns into a “fever,” it becomes something productive that she knows she can use for good.
Much to the victims’ dismay, the disciplinary committee decides to allow Darren Tinzler to remain on campus as long as he completes three counseling sessions with a therapist who specializes in impulse control. Zee reasons that the head of the disciplinary committee is probably “one of those women who hates women,” but Greer urges Zee not to indict another woman out of anger toward Tinzler. Anger is “hard to sustain,” and though Greer tries to rally several of Tinzler’s other victims toward continued action, most of them are busy, tired, and ready to move on. Ryland is not a very political place, and Greer and Zee, having no outlet for their outrage, decide to take matters into their own hands.
The university’s decision reflects the ways in which society goes above and beyond to exonerate men while attempting to silence and discount women. Zee and Greer’s reactions to the decision reveal their very different approaches to feminism. Greer wants to support and empower women and is frustrated when she fails to successfully encourage Tinzler’s victims to get in touch with feminist action. Meanwhile, Zee understands that just because someone is a woman does not mean that they are a feminist.
Greer and Zee order a bulk supply of t-shirts and spend a long night in their dorm’s basement ironing transfers of Darren Tinzler’s face—with the word “Unwanted” plastered across it—onto the shirts. The next morning, they attempt to give away the t-shirts at the dining hall, but hardly anyone wants one. Greer and Zee, however, wear their shirts all the time—they are both wearing them on the night that Faith Frank comes to Ryland to give a speech.
Making t-shirts seems to be Greer and Zee’s final, desperate effort to sustain awareness about the injustice of Tinzler’s exoneration. However, Greer and Zee are young and naïve in thinking that they can bring about real social change through homemade t-shirts, suggesting that both girls are idealistic in their approach to feminism.
Zee sees an announcement for Faith’s lecture in the college’s weekly newspaper and encourages Greer to come along, even though Faith “represents [a] kind of outdated idea of feminism.” Despite this, Zee deeply admires Faith and believes that if one of them can engage Faith in a conversation about the unjust situation with Darren Tinzler, Faith will tell them what to do.
Zee seems to idolize Faith and is certain that she will have the answers they have been seeking about how to deal with the injustice surrounding Darren Tinzler. In this way, Zee puts Faith on a pedestal, foreshadowing Greer’s later adoption of this same behavior.
In anticipation of the event, Greer looks Faith Frank up on the internet. Greer learns that Faith founded the feminist magazine, Bloomer, in the early 1970s, and though it never fared particularly well, the magazine was beloved by a small core audience of feminists. Faith also published a book of her own, a “manifesto” on feminism entitled The Female Persuasion, which argued that women did not have to “act tough” or “behave as badly as men” in order to appear strong and powerful. Faith’s book was popular with women, and in the years since its initial publication, it has never gone out of print. Looking through photographs and videos of Faith online, Greer notes Faith’s “signature look”—a pair of tall, sexy suede boots—as well as the contrast between her kind general demeanor and her quick temper in interviews.
Although Greer has barely heard of Faith Frank before Zee brought her up, Greer now finds herself absorbed by learning everything she can about Faith, suggesting that Greer is beginning to idolize Faith as well. Both Greer and Zee are naïve when it comes to feminist thought and action, but Greer is especially undereducated and new to the scene. Because of this, Greer’s early exposure to Faith’s brand of feminism will be particularly impactful, as it will become the framework by which Greer evaluates all other modes of feminist thought.
Greer and Zee arrive at the chapel where Faith is speaking. The venue is packed, and Faith is running late due to bad weather. When Faith finally enters the building, Greer and Zee are excited by her “forceful presence.” Faith’s speech is concerned with the aims of feminism, and she explains the different aspects of the movement—the two main facets, she says, are individualism versus sisterhood. She urges those listening not to get caught up in individualism, or seeking their own advancement, and to rather attempt to find a way to “play a role in the great cause of women’s equality.” She implores the students to recognize that women need other women. She warns the students that as they dedicate themselves to sociopolitical causes, they will be met with resistance, but they should always remember that she is proud of them for “doing what matters.”
The central theme of Faith’s speech foreshadows a major struggle that Zee and Greer will have to work through for the rest of their lives. As the novel progresses, Greer will wrestle with her individualistic impulses despite her belief in sisterhood and community. Meanwhile, Zee is so focused on community-building that she forgets the power of individualism. Throughout the course of the novel, Zee will have to learn how to utilize her own personal strengths to further her goals of community organization and the betterment of collective spaces.
Greer finds herself “taken in completely” and wanting more of Faith—listening to Faith speak, Greer thinks, feels similar to falling in love. When Faith opens up the discussion for questions from the audience, Greer desperately wants to ask a question but is afraid to speak up. At the last moment, as the event is about to end, both Greer and Zee raise their hand. Greer fears that whatever Zee is going to ask will be more articulate and interesting than Greer’s own question. However, when Faith calls on Greer rather than Zee, Zee urges Greer to speak up.
Faith Frank jolts Greer out of her tendencies toward shyness, repression, and insecurity, echoing the way that Zee has helped Greer get out of her comfort zone socially and politically. Although Zee is the true Faith Frank fan, and the one who brought Greer to her in the first place, Zee recognizes what an important moment it is for Greer to speak out, and selflessly allows her to take the spotlight. This moment foreshadows a later reversal, when Greer chooses not to selflessly share Faith with Zee.
Greer timidly stands up and asks Faith a broad, emotional question. Greer wants to know what she and her fellow students should do about “the way it is” for women. Greer points out the t-shirts she and Zee are wearing and informs Faith of the university’s mishandling of the assault and harassment case against Darren Tinzler. Faith urges Greer to keep the conversation going, and says she is “amaze[d]” by how “alarmingly improvised” the legal process on most college campuses is. Just then, the provost stands and cuts her off, announcing that they are out of time.
Greer wants to know what she can do about “the way it is,” meaning the way the world is riddled with misogyny and injustice toward women. The Darren Tinzler incident is Greer’s first real exposure to injustice and misogyny, and she is so rattled by it that she cannot move on from it—much to the dismay of the university administration, who want to avoid conflict and scandal, seen by the way that the provost cuts Faith off.
As the event finishes, students rush up to Faith and surround her. Greer also wants to talk with Faith more but thinks it is hopeless. Zee and Greer resign themselves to getting a pizza and returning to their dorm, but on the way out, they see Faith heading into the ladies’ room. They decide to follow her into the bathroom and “each try to have a moment with her.”
Greer and Zee didn’t exactly get what they wanted from Faith—they thought that by merely being in her presence, they would suddenly find all of the answers to their problems. However, the girls are still convinced of Faith’s power and influence, so they attempt to “have a moment with her” in the bathroom.
When the girls enter the bathroom, Faith is already in a stall. Zee and Greer each head into a stall on either side of her and wait for her to emerge. When Faith approaches the sink, Greer joins her there. Faith recognizes Greer and apologizes for the way their exchange got cut off. Greer introduces herself to Faith and reveals how difficult it usually is for her to speak her mind. Greer says that in grade school, she was always told to use her “inside voice,” but she wonders if now she should start using her “outside voice.” Faith urges Greer not to beat herself up and to stay true to herself—only then will she be able to accomplish the things she cares about.
By responding to Greer’s continued inquiries and confessions with grace and empathy, Faith demonstrates her devotion to supporting young women. However, it will eventually be revealed that Faith—in order to stroke her own ego and feel relevant—needs validation from these young women as much as they crave validation from Faith.
Greer feels that her moment with Faith is about to end, knowing that Zee will come out of her stall at any moment. Greer continues talking with Faith, confessing that she feels out of place at Ryland but had no choice but to come here—her parents, she says, “screwed up” her financial aid. Faith tells Greer that she admires her for working so hard to assert herself and find meaning in the place she’s in, even though it’s hard for her to be there. Faith takes Greer’s hands and tells her to keep her head down and focus, and Greer is moved by the gesture. At that moment, Zee comes out of the stall and begins washing her hands.
Greer strings her conversation with Faith along, stalling and attempting to reveal more and more about her own life in hopes that Faith will have an answer for all of Greer’s problems. Although she knows she should give Zee a chance to speak with Faith, Greer keeps talking. Greer shows that she is desperate to get Faith’s attention and keep it all to herself, even at Zee’s expense—a behavior that will endure throughout the novel.
Zee compliments Faith on her lecture and begins gushing about she has “always” been a “super-fan.” Faith shakes Zee’s hand and wishes both of the girls good luck. Before leaving, she encourages Greer to move on from the sexual assault case, saying that there is “lots to be angry about well beyond the bounds of this campus.” The provost opens the bathroom door, urging Faith to join the reception in her honor. The provost leaves, and Faith laments over having to go. She once again urges Greer and Zee to devote themselves to finding new experiences, and then hands Greer one of her personal business cards.
Faith clearly favors Greer over Zee, as evidenced by the way that Faith gives Greer a business card rather than giving one to each of the girls. Nonetheless, the fact that Greer was able to connect so deeply with Faith in such a short amount of time (and in a bathroom, of all places) remains tinged with a kind of magic. It seems to presage the start of a long relationship between Greer and Faith, though neither yet knows what shape it will take.
Greer holds the card in her hand, feeling as if she has just won a lottery ticket. Greer doesn’t know what she’ll do with it, but she feels that just receiving the card is an accomplishment of sorts. Faith closes her wallet and leaves, bidding both Greer and Zee a good evening.
Greer holds the card in the hands and feels that it has imbued her life with a strange and new kind of power. It is clear that Greer now idolizes Faith just like Zee does.