In Scarsdale, New York, Zee Eisenstat adjusts to living at home with her wealthy and successful parents, Wendy and Richard, who are both local judges. Every morning, her parents make smoothies and go for a run, and though they always invite Zee along, she cannot bring herself to join them. It is bad enough that she is “living with them once again like an oversized child,” and working a job she hates.
Zee, adjusting to life back at home, feels profoundly out of place. It is significant that Zee’s parents are judges, as it emphasizes the way that Zee feels constantly judged by them. She is aware that she has not met their expectations for her, and even though she continues to try, she is only making herself more miserable.
The only part of her job she likes is the strange camaraderie between the paralegals. As one of them, Zee is often asked to stay late at the office, and while the paralegals wait for the lawyers to finish working, they share stories from their pasts, many of which Zee finds genuinely interesting. Zee also has found a kind of freedom in her ability to express herself in the workplace—it is more casual than she thought it would be, and though her parents have always urged her to dress in a more feminine way and wear a series of hideous skirts, at the law firm, Zee is free to dress like herself.
Zee has found some bright spots in her dark experience of returning to her childhood home to follow in her parents’ footsteps. However, even the positive things about her “new” life chafe with painful memories from her childhood, and leave her feeling exposed, shameful, and sad.
Zee has also enjoyed a chaste flirtation with another woman at work but is reluctant to bring anyone home to her parents’ house—she is embarrassed to be living in her childhood bedroom, which is covered in embarrassing posters from her youth. As a young girl, Zee was passionate about animal rights activism, so pictures of endangered baby animals still line the walls of her room. She recalls joining animal activist forums under a false name as an eleven-year-old, and how her initial love of baby animals and their cuteness grew into outrage as she got older and came to understand the depth and pervasiveness of animal cruelty.
Zee has always been caught up in the tension between the desire to be herself and the desire to please her parents—activism became an outlet through which she could explore new facets of her personality and engage with the world around her despite her parents’ attempt to interfere with her self-expression.
From a young age, Zee was stirred by “all kinds of social justice movements,” and she had trouble keeping up with the many causes she wanted to engage with and support. Because of her frenzied activism, Zee’s grades suffered all throughout high school, and so she wound up at Ryland—a mediocre institution, but one where she could express herself and explore her activist leanings.
Zee’s drives toward activism were always well-intentioned, but her scattered and frenzied need to engage with the world around her resulted in a fractured academic life. Still, Zee was okay with not pursuing a traditional path.
Now, living at home, Zee feels that she is in “a moment of flux.” She is living a life that is a kind of preamble to her real life, and she knows that just as Greer has found an exciting, engaging, and fulfilling career path, Zee will find her own path soon enough. Zee calls Greer on the phone often, and the two chat about their hopes, dreams, and frustrations. Zee is vocal about how badly she wishes she worked at Loci, but Greer is always quick to object and explain how boring and mundane much of the work at the organization is.
Just like Greer and Cory, Zee feels that she is in an in-between state and is attempting to understand how decisions she is making now will add up to a clear way forward. Zee does not know about Greer’s betrayal and still sees her closest college friend as a source of comfort and camaraderie as they bond over their shared frustrations.
Zee was bummed, but not miserable, when Greer said that Faith had read Zee’s letter but claimed that there were no available positions at the foundation. Lately, Zee has found herself less focused on securing a great job than satisfying her desire to “be needed or loved.”
Zee’s true desires are to feel needed and appreciated in the workplace. It seems that Zee, though selfless in her words and actions toward Greer, has somewhat of a selfish streak. She wants to pursue activism to make herself feel good.
Zee reflects on her complicated relationship with her parents, whose profession as judges often bleeds into their personal lives—they tend to judge everything around them, except, oddly enough, Zee’s older brothers. The two boys have managed to escape much of their parents’ judgement and discipline, while the brunt of it has fallen on Zee, who has never fit into the upper-class mold her parents have wanted her to inhabit.
Zee has always felt out of place and has always seemed to fall short of her parents’ high expectations for her. Living at home, all these old hurts and disappointments are rehashed, and Zee must once again grapple with feeling like a disappointment to her parents.
Zee was born Franny Eisenstat, named for a character from a famous novel, Franny and Zooey, written by J.D. Salinger—a writer whom her parents both adore and bonded over on one of their first dates. By the time she was thirteen, Franny felt disconnected from the name, which she saw as “frilly.” As her bat mitzvah approached, Franny was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the models of femininity she saw all around her—including her parents’ busty, ultra-feminine law clerk, and all of Franny’s classmates who dressed up in fancy dresses for the bat mitzvah.
Zee sees Franny as almost a separate entity from herself. Growing up, Franny was torn between trying to figure out her own unconventional identity and trying to fit in with her parents’ expectations of her. In addition, Franny felt uncomfortable with the models of femininity she saw all around her, which were all largely the same with little room for difference or variation.
At Franny’s bat mitzvah, she watched as several of her classmates made gay jokes and mocked lesbians—two of her female classmates pretended to kiss each other in front of a group of students. All the while, Franny said nothing, afraid to reveal who she truly was. During the party, she attempted to kiss one of her male classmates, but found that the experience left her feeling only “half-full,” and wondered if she would ever be fully satisfied by kissing someone.
Franny felt confused and unfulfilled when she tried to alter her true identity and desires by kissing a boy. Although she knew that her friends’ ridicule of homosexuality was wrong and cruel, it pushed her into situations that left her feeling lonely, powerless, confused, and dissatisfied.
By the time she was sixteen, Franny was more in touch with her sexuality, and in order to test the waters, she made plans to go to the city and visit a lesbian bar in the trendy East Village. While all of Franny’s friends went off to a Broadway show, Franny stole away to the Village, used a fake I.D. to get into the bar (called Ben-Her), and found herself struck by the myriad displays of femininity and female sexuality all around her.
Franny, knowing that she couldn’t keep isolating herself and denying who she was, attempted to find a way to explore both her sexuality and independence. She found herself feeling vindicated and validated once she realized she had found a new community where she felt more like herself than she ever had before.
As Franny shyly ordered a beer, she could feel herself being watched, and when she turned around, she saw her parents’ law clerk, Linda, pushing through the crowd of women toward her. Linda was excited and happy to see Franny and asked if her parents knew that she was gay—or that she was here. Franny revealed that she hadn’t come out to anyone yet, and Linda expressed sympathy and understanding.
Franny was relieved to encounter a familiar face at the bar and found herself surprised by Linda’s empathy and kindness—especially since Linda had once appeared to Franny as a model of unattainable femininity .
Franny visited the bar more and more often, and she eventually experienced her first sexual encounter with a woman. After she left the bar with an eighteen-year-old named Alana, Franny admitted that it was her first time. Alana urged Franny to enjoy the feeling, focus on pleasure, and not get caught up in worrying whether the tryst would go anywhere or lead to a relationship, because it would not. Franny surrendered to the experience and finally felt herself encountering the satisfaction and “fullness” she’d always longed for.
As Franny explored her sexual desire for other women, she at last found herself feeling satisfied. This bolstered Franny’s sense of personal fortitude and instilled in her the certainty that she was on the path to truly discovering herself and coming into her own as an individual.
Franny took many more trips into the city to Ben-Her over the years, but one night, during her senior year of high school, Franny arrived back in Scarsdale to find her mother waiting up for her in a bathrobe. Wendy knew what Franny had been up to, because that afternoon she’d fired her secretary, Linda, for stealing office supplies. In retaliation, Linda outed Franny to Wendy, and urged Wendy to ask Franny where she had really been going when she visited the city. Franny’s mother immediately suggested that Franny go to therapy, and though her father was a little more understanding and supportive, Franny nonetheless found herself in a therapist’s office once a week.
Franny experienced her first major betrayal at the hands of another woman when Linda outed her to her mother. This is also one of the first displays of the dark side of female friendship and mentorship, apart from Greer’s betrayal of Zee over the letter, which is still unknown to Zee. Although Franny was sent to therapy to get in touch with herself and work through her issues, the simple camaraderie of her clandestine trips to Ben-Her had done that for her.
Franny was initially reluctant to open up in the sessions, but she soon came to enjoy them. One day, she confessed that she “loathed” being called Franny. Her therapist suggested she change her name, but Franny insisted that her name held sentimental value for her parents and could not be changed. Franny soon came up with the idea of going by Zooey, but when this name didn’t feel right, she shortened it to Zee, enjoying the androgynous vibe it gave her.
In therapy, Franny surprised herself by taking steps toward an identity that made her feel like her true self. As Zee shed her childhood name and gave herself a new one, she committed herself fully toward her individuality and her desires, strengthening her inner sense of empowerment even more.
Years later, while hunting down a book for her psychology class at Ryland, Zee came upon a book written by the therapist she went to in high school. She opened it and began to read the case studies within it, until she came upon one which described Zee’s story exactly, albeit with her name changed to “Kew.” The therapist described Zee as “confused about her sexuality and reluctant to accept her femaleness,” and laments the “sad” nature of Zee’s choice to change her name which “bore no traces of femininity.” The therapist also wrote that in her sessions with Zee, she could see the “real heterosexual self that wanted to be seen” within her.
This second betrayal at the hands of an older woman shocks Zee to her core—her therapy sessions had meant a lot to her and had helped her to get closer to the person she felt she was always meant to be. Once again, the dark side of female mentorship is revealed. To find out that her therapist believed all along that Zee was lying to herself is a deep injustice.
Zee only told Greer about her discovery of the unfair, cruel article, and though Zee tried to move on from the pain of it, she found herself realizing that a pattern of being betrayed by older women was emerging in her life: first Linda, now her old therapist.
Zee confides in her close friend Greer, confessing to her the pain of being betrayed by an older woman whom she thought she could trust. This passage establishes Zee’s fear of being betrayed yet again by a woman who is supposed to be her mentor or her friend—foreshadowing Greer’s later betrayal of Zee by withholding the letter from Faith.
Zee distracted herself from her confusion and misery by throwing herself into simultaneous affairs with two different women. When they discovered her infidelity, both relationships ended, but Zee continued to “go through women” quickly and proudly claimed her identity as a “slut.” Once, Zee found herself in bed with Dog—one of her close male friends. Dog had feelings for Zee, and though she insisted that she was not interested in exploring heterosexuality, she agreed to spend the night with him. As they fumbled around in bed, however, Zee realized that the tryst was not going to work, and she asked Dog to leave. As college continued, Zee continued to sleep with many women, but “something difficult often happened” between her and her partners for reasons she could never understand.
Rather than avoid women who have the potential to hurt her, Zee flings herself into relationships with women, luxuriating in the power that sexual pleasure and physical validation bring her. To this end, she halfheartedly pursues an encounter with one of her close male friends but ultimately decides to remain true to her identity and desires. Zee has trouble connecting with women despite her love of them, and she wonders what this will come to mean for her future as a woman in the world.
Now, Zee feels restless living at home and working at the law firm. By winter, she knows that she needs to go somewhere she feels “needed.” One night, one of her coworkers mentions that he has a sister who works for Teach and Reach—a nonprofit that trains recent college graduates and places them in jobs in public high schools around the country. The training session is only six weeks, and the organization is actively recruiting. Zee takes her coworker’s sister’s email and gets in touch.
Zee’s desire to grasp at any opportunity that will take her away from Scarsdale mirrors Greer’s desire to do anything to get closer to Faith Frank. Both Zee and Greer are desperate to become the women they want to be and have very clear ideas about the things that will help them on their journey.
Zee is frankly startled by how easy it is to get a job with Teach and Reach—when she speaks with a recruiter over the phone, the woman tells her that enthusiasm is the number one quality they are looking for in their teachers. Zee gets the job and moves to Chicago in the middle of winter. Zee’s training period is accelerated to two and a half weeks—her supervisor praises her for being a “fast learner.” Zee’s salary is tiny, so her parents are paying her rent. They disapprove of her having taken the job but recognize that there is something noble about it, and so they are supporting her as she pursues it.
Zee’s most recent attempt at activism is clearly flawed, even to her. She knows on some level that two weeks of training does not adequately prepare one to be responsible for young, at-risk children. However, Zee, like her parents, is blinded by the “nobility” of her desire to be an activist and is hopeful that all the kinks will miraculously work themselves out as she adjusts to her new life.
Zee begins teaching history at a charter school that is part of a corporation—Learning Octagon. Zee is replacing a Teach and Reach teacher who had quit dramatically in the middle of the school day. Because of the instability that her students have experienced as the school scrambled to find a replacement, Zee expects that her first day will be chaos. Instead, she finds students who seem as if they have taken a sleeping potion—they are languid and tired, and she worries that they will be uninterested in everything she has to say. She wants her students to need her but is suddenly aware that this might not be the case.
On her first day, Zee must confront that her true desire is not necessarily to be an activist but simply to be indispensable. Greer and Zee are similar in this way, as they both felt a lack of acceptance in their childhoods and now want to pursue paths that will enable them to feel vital, necessary, and above all, adored.
As the weeks go by, Zee finds herself struggling to get her students to listen to her or even to pay the minimum amount of attention to her lessons. They threaten her and fight with one another, and when Zee relays these stories to Greer, Greer urges her to quit. Zee, however, knows she can’t abandon her students—they have been deprived of enough. Many of her students don’t have gloves in the middle of the cold Chicago winter, and one small boy confides in Zee that he does not have a toothbrush or toothpaste.
Despite Zee’s questionable intentions and desire at the outset of her Teach for Reach position, she eventually finds herself wanting to truly make a change in her students’ lives. Zee realizes that although she might be in over her head, she can still make a difference, so she throws herself into this attempt.
At lunchtimes in the teachers’ lounge, Zee notices a beautiful guidance counselor named Noelle Williams. Noelle never speaks to Zee at lunch and instead eats her yogurt in silence. Zee wishes she could find a way to get closer to Noelle. One day, she approaches her and strikes up a conversation, asking about how long Noelle has been in Chicago. Stiffly, Noelle tells Zee that she has been in Chicago for three years and has been working at the school since its “inception.” Though Noelle answers Zee’s questions about herself and the school, she is not warm or welcoming. Zee, attempting to further the conversation, asks if Noelle has any “tips” for a newcomer. Noelle dismissively says that Zee should’ve been given all the “tips” she needed in her training sessions. The conversation comes to an awkward end, and Noelle leaves.
If Zee cannot be loved or desired by her students, she figures, perhaps she can find a way to make herself feel needed by someone her own age in a very different way. Zee wants to bond with and learn from Noelle, but Noelle is clearly uninterested. She is closed off, terse, and dismissive, and Zee senses that Noelle’s dislike of her comes from her own status as a transient, newly minted Teach for Reach instructor.
One afternoon, a month into Zee’s teaching position at Learning Octagon, one of Zee’s students, Shara Pick, raises her hand and asks to go to the bathroom. Shara is “bumblebee-shaped” and always dressed in a heavy parka. Zee knows that Shara’s parents are both meth addicts, and Zee has been careful to watch for any warning signs of abuse or drug use in the young student. Zee excuses Shara from class and continues with her lesson. After a long while, Shara still hasn’t returned to class, and Zee sends another student to check on her. That student returns and informs Zee that something is wrong with Shara. Zee follows her student out into the hall.
Zee cares for her students, though their problems seem well above her pay grade. Despite her desire to benefit the lives of her students, Zee is ill-equipped to handle the very serious issues that many of them are facing. The impending situation with Shara Pick is about to test Zee’s faith in herself and in her activist inclinations once and for all.
In the bathroom, Shara is curled up on the floor, holding her stomach and complaining of pain. Zee and her student carry Shara to the nurse’s office and lay her down on the bed. To comfort Shara, Zee tells her that she probably has appendicitis, but that once they get her to a doctor who can remove her appendix she’ll feel better. Noelle appears in the nurse’s office and asks what’s going on, and Zee answers that Shara has appendicitis. Noelle dismisses Zee’s diagnosis, snidely pointing out that they don’t teach medicine at Teach and Reach training. Noelle unzips Shara’s coat, and Noelle and Zee realize that Shara is pregnant.
At first, Zee thinks that she can help Shara and that Zee knows what is best for her own student. When Noelle arrives on the scene, though, the more experienced woman takes the reins and exposes the depth and severity of what Shara Pick is going through at such a young age.
Noelle softly asks Shara if she knew that she was going to have a baby, and Shara confesses that she did. Noelle tells Shara that she and Zee are going to help her, and in that moment, everything speeds up. The nurse calls 911, but Shara’s labor is progressing rapidly, and so Noelle and Zee search on the Internet for what to do in the case of an emergency delivery. The paramedics arrive in time, however, and help Shara deliver her baby girl right there in the nurse’s office.
Noelle and Zee care for Shara as best they can, but they are both unequipped to handle such a grave situation. Shara has her baby safely, though, and when the child is revealed to be a girl, Wolitzer imbues the narrative with a sense that the cycle of feminine pain and hardship only continues.
After the stressful afternoon, Noelle and Zee head to a nearby restaurant despite their relative dislike of one another. Shara’s grandmother arrived and went with Shara to the hospital, and the situation is now out of Zee and Noelle’s hands. As the two women sit at the restaurant, Zee wonders aloud what will happen to Shara, and Noelle reveals that a social worker will be sent to assess the situation. Shara will be allowed to come back to school, but it will be difficult for her if she chooses to. Moreover, Noelle says, the entire faculty and staff of the school will have to reckon with how nobody managed to catch the fact that Shara was pregnant for several months.
Zee and Noelle are practically strangers, but the seriousness and wildness of what they have just witnessed has brought them together, at least momentarily. Noelle knows that she and her fellow faculty and staff will have to do more to help their students, and she wonders how she can possibly do more for her disadvantaged kids.
Zee feels terrible. She can’t believe she missed the fact that Shara was pregnant, though she tells Noelle that she couldn’t have known, as Shara wore a parka in class. Noelle tells Zee that the parka in itself was a warning sign, and Zee should have picked up on it. Zee, sick of Noelle’s snide comments and bad attitude, asks what she has done to Noelle. Noelle replies that it’s not Zee she dislikes—it’s Zee’s idealism. She feels that Zee, and people like her at Teach for Reach and similar organizations, use the students to feel good about themselves. Zee insists that she deserves some slack from Noelle—she just joined Teach and Reach to do some good, but ever since she’s come to the school, Noelle has hated her.
Noelle continues to berate Zee for not being good enough at her job, but Zee is sick of reprimanded when all she is trying to do is make a difference in the community. Noelle points out the hypocrisy and insufficiency of organizations like Teach for Reach, but Zee continues to insist that she is dedicated, and that she only wants to show up for the community and the children.
Noelle tells Zee that if she hated her, she wouldn’t be at dinner with her. Zee says that if Noelle likes her, she has an odd way of showing it. Noelle teasingly says that she doesn’t quite like Zee, either, but that Zee being able to get Noelle to like her is a more achievable goal than “saving” the students at Learning Octagon.
Zee and Noelle have a pleasant, flirtatious exchange. Despite their mutual frustrations with one another, a foundation of intrigue and respect is beginning to take shape.
Zee asks Noelle why her background disqualifies her from being able to help students and make a difference. Noelle explains that when Teach and Reach began sending teachers to the Learning Octagon, Noelle and her fellow faculty and staff thought that a dedicated team of individuals would come in to help change things. Instead, they found themselves faced with a group of inexperienced, undertrained young people who were more excited by the idea of doing some good and then returning to their “normal” lives than actually trying to make a significant change in the community.
Noelle highlights the perils of activism for activism’s sake, which Zee has been guilty of. Noelle reveals her own frustrations with how deeply flawed her own beloved community is and implies that the school would be better off without Teach and Reach—the students are only further demoralized by the constant influx of ignorant would-be do-gooders.
Zee asks Noelle if she should just throw in the towel and quit. Noelle tells her that she of course shouldn’t quit—she should stay and give her students some sense of stability. Noelle tells Zee to stop focusing so much on how to “get involved” and instead find a way to live her life in a truthful, honest way while honing her values and keeping them intact.
After this exchange, an “open playfulness” emerges between Zee and Noelle, and they exchange some banter about their lives and their families. After a while, the conversation circles back to Shara, and Noelle resolves to do her best to make sure that Shara does not “slip through the cracks.” Zee considers how scared Shara must have been, and Noelle notes that Zee herself seems scared now—but this time of Noelle. Zee admits teasingly that Noelle is “a little scary.” Noelle asks if Zee only thinks of her as a scary person. Zee has noticed that the conversation is now charged with a kind of electricity. Noelle asks how Zee sees her, and Zee says she doesn’t understand what’s going on between them. Noelle asks her if she’s sure, and then Zee admits to realizing what’s going on.
As Noelle and Zee work through their frustrations with one another—and with the fraught community they have found themselves in—a barrier breaks down between the two women, and they begin to relate to one another more openly and acknowledge the tension which has existed between the two of them for a long while now. Zee, who has longed for affection and recognition, seems to finally be finding it in an unlikely individual. Nothing specific is said, but both women tacitly admit their attraction to one another.
After the meal is over, Noelle and Zee are both slightly drunk. Noelle confesses that she purposefully continued drinking once she realized she was attracted to Zee. Both women outwardly admit their attraction to one another at this point, and they laugh together—it is laughter in the face of “unfixable” things, laughter born of a desire to connect despite the difficulty of their lives and careers.
In spite of the difficulty, pain, and hardship both women face each day, they find solace and even happiness in admitting their attraction to one another, and revel in the mutual attention and the release of tension it offers them.
After dinner, Noelle goes home with Zee. The women begin kissing on Zee’s narrow mattress. As Zee and Noelle undress, Zee wonders who, out of the two of them, has the power in this situation, since power is hard to see, quantify, or calibrate. Zee recalls a phone conversation with Greer about one of the Loci summits, which was on the topic of power. “It excites everyone,” Greer had said then about the concept of power. Now, Zee thinks that it would be a “dream” to live in a world of female power—mutual power. She feels she has found some measure of it with Noelle. As the two women make love, Zee feels power leave the equation between them—suddenly, the concept is irrelevant as they collapse into one another after a long, difficult day.
Zee wonders what it means to cast power aside altogether and dedicate oneself to the pursuit of equality and evenness in all kinds of relationships, especially those of a romantic and sexual nature. The constantly shifting power balances in many of the novel’s central relationships—Zee and Greer, Greer and Faith, Greer and Cory—are, by proxy, held up to the light in this passage as Zee considers how much better the world would be if all relationships were free from the bounds and pressures of power dynamics.