In The Female Persuasion, the main characters’ families are almost all struggling with intense issues related to trauma, pain, inadequacy, and shame. Greer Kadetsy’s stoner parents find themselves bewildered and intimidated by their type-A, go-getter child. Greer seeks refuge in her boyfriend Cory Pinto’s family, who provide a haven of relative stability, normalcy, and encouragement—that is, until Cory’s younger brother Alby dies in a tragic accident. Zee Eisenstat’s parents—both judges—have difficulty accepting their queer daughter’s drives toward activism and her desire to break from the upper-middle-class lives they have modeled for her. Wolitzer depicts her characters navigating their messy family lives, grasping blindly for solutions to their feelings of inadequate parental or filial love, and often forming new families in the process, though sometimes only creating more suffering for everyone. In this novel, Wolitzer shows how her characters deal with issues banal, tragic, and in between within their families—the ones they were born into and the ones they have made for themselves—and argues that the lifelong search for security, approval, and intimacy from a family or a familial structure is both universal and inescapable.
Greer Kadetsky has grown up with two parents who are seemingly indifferent to her successes and failures. Lapsed hippies with little direction in life, Greer’s mother works as a library clown who performs for local children, while Greer’s father takes odd jobs as a house painter and an enthusiastic peddler of protein bars, caught in the inescapable loop of pyramid-schemes. Greer has always felt distant from her parents and retreated into books throughout her childhood as a way to cope with the loneliness she felt. When Greer applied to Yale, she asked her parents to help her fill out a series of complicated forms that would qualify her for financial aid. Later, when her acceptance arrives with a meager aid package, her parents reveal that they fudged the paperwork, daunted by the “bureaucracy” of it all and the pressures to prove themselves to an institution in which they had no faith in the first place. Greer seeks comfort, validation, and a sense of belonging elsewhere—first from Cory’s family, then from Faith Frank and the Loci “family,” of which Greer tries desperately to be a part. Greer is so excited by the prospect of finding a group of people with whom she fits in that she changes herself time and time again to make herself “perfect” in the eyes of her coworkers and, most importantly, Faith. Greer, a strict vegetarian since the early days of college, forces herself to eat meat in order to fit in during a weekend trip up to Faith’s country house. Once Greer has compromised her identity and values in this way to secure approval from this new “family,” she soon goes along with everything else demanded of her at Loci. She even considers turning a blind eye when it is revealed to her that the mentorship program which the organization purportedly established for a group of refugee women in Ecuador does not, in fact, exist, even though Loci has been touting its success. Greer’s desire to find a group of people who truly understand her backfires. All her life she conceived of what it would look and feel like to find a community of people whose intellect, social awareness, and feminist values would align with hers, but she eventually comes to find that what may at first appear to be a tight-knit, reliable group of people is often just as fractured as the strange family she left behind.
Zee Eisenstat was born Franny Eisenstat, but her rejection of her family’s ideas about her and their hopes and dreams for her led her to make a new identity for herself. Zee knew she was gay from an early age and broke away from her family at every opportunity to seek out a community in New York City. This, however, led to her being “outed” against her will when one of her parents’ vengeful employees revealed that she had seen Zee on multiple occasions at a lesbian bar in the Lower East Side. In college, Zee seeks to make a community for herself out of her love of feminism and activism, but she ultimately fails. When she is forced to return home after college, the drudgery of working as a paralegal—the career her parents have chosen for her—wears on her so greatly that she flees to Chicago to work for Teach and Reach, a program that places mostly white, middle-class, college-educated people in teaching positions at schools in impoverished or dangerous neighborhoods. Zee is not only unable to make a new community for herself there, but realizes, after witnessing the hardships of these students and failing utterly to relate, that she has led herself further astray than ever. However, Zee’s life does eventually end in happiness (though not necessarily in the discovery of a tribe or a family) after she finds security in her partnership with her lover, Noelle, and fulfillment as a trauma worker who supports disenfranchised and demoralized victims. Through Zee’s arc, Wolitzer suggests that, just like in Greer’s case, the search for an idealized family or community is often futile and fruitless.
Cory Pinto’s family is, at the start of the novel at least, picture-perfect. Immigrants from Portugal who have succeeded in living the American dream, Cory’s parents are loving and supportive of each other and of their two “genius” children, the book-smart Cory and the hyper-curious, deeply sensitive Alby. When Cory’s mother accidentally causes Alby’s death by running him over with her car in the driveway (he had been lying in the grass observing his pet turtle, Slowy), the Pinto family’s loving, peaceful foundation begins to crumble. Cory’s father leaves and returns to Portugal, unable to look into the face of the woman who “killed” his child. Meanwhile, Cory’s mother becomes bedridden and psychotic, describing visions of the ghost of her son in which he implores her to scratch off her skin. Cory, fresh out of college and poised for a financially successful career in consulting, leaves his dream job and returns home to care for his ailing mother. Sequestered in his childhood home and forced to take up his mother’s work (cleaning houses in the neighborhood) in order to make ends meet, Cory becomes obsessed with the idea that his younger brother is not dead but simply “lost” somewhere out there in the world, just waiting to be found. This delusion, born out of the desire to escape from his fractured family, drags Cory to his lowest point. Eventually, Cory is able to reconcile his feelings of loss and pain with the idea that his brother is truly gone. His desire to search the world for his brother, however, results in an idea for a videogame, which he is eventually able to pitch to a developer and watch come to a fruition as SoulFinder—a hit videogame in which players must navigate both earthly and ethereal planes in search of lost loved ones. Cory’s storyline, in contrast to Greer and Zee’s, suggests that sometimes the ache of the desire for a whole, idyllic family or community cannot be filled. Certain losses cannot be amended, and people can never be replaced. Cory’s videogame reflects the listlessness and longing that have come to characterize his life, but unlike Zee and Greer, he does not become consumed with the hunt for a “replacement” community. Instead, he chooses to sit with his desire and work through the ways in which loss has recalibrated his understanding of himself, of family, and of the world.
Wolitzer’s novel portrays fractured families and communities, as well as the obsessive, often destructive patterns of longing and searching which develop in the wake of such fractures. As Greer, Zee, and Cory grow into adulthood, they either to chase some semblance of the stability, comfort, and support that they feel was missing from their lives or learn how to live with instability and brokenness. In both outcomes, Woltizer demonstrates the banality of the struggle to reconcile one’s past traumas—often the result of a fractured family or community, which, though a deeply personal thing, is also a universal trouble. Many of her characters are troubled so deeply by what they feel is the denial of a secure, supportive, and easily-navigated familial structure, that they fail to realize that everyone around them is wrestling with that same problem.
Family and Community ThemeTracker
Family and Community Quotes in The Female Persuasion
Greer got busy cutting a perfect cube and then spearing it. To eat meat when you hated it and when you hadn’t eaten it for four years was an aberration, nearly a form of cannibalism. But also, she told herself, it was an act of love. In eating this, she was being someone Faith would want to continue to confide in and listen to and rely on; someone she would want to cook meat for […] Goodbye, cow, she thought, picturing the distant green blur of a meadow. She swallowed hard and forced herself not to cough it up. The steak went down and stayed down.
“Yum,” Greer said.
“So you’re saying I should quit now?”
Noelle looked at her steadily. “No, of course I’m not saying that. You shouldn’t do that to these kids, not in the middle of the year. They crave stability. You stay, and you finish the year, and you do your best, and then you decide. Look, I’m sure you’re a fine person, and I’m sure you’re a person who is trying hard to… what do you say to yourself, ‘get involved’? I know that feeling: I have had it myself. But sometimes the way to get involved is to just live your life and be yourself with all your values intact. And by just being you, it’ll happen. Maybe not in big ways, but it’ll happen.”
When they lay down upon the narrow mattress that Zee had purchased at a garage sale upon moving here […] she couldn’t help but think a little bit about power: who had it right now […] Power was hard to understand sometimes. You could not quantify it or calibrate it. You could barely see it, even when you were looking straight at it.
“That’s what everyone was talking about at the first Loci summit,” Greer had said recently on the phone when the subject came up. “The meaning and uses of power […] Everyone who was there said that it was clear that it’s a topic we’re going to return to because no one can get enough of it. It excites everyone. Power! […]”
To live in a world of female power—mutual power—felt like a desirable dream to Zee. Having power meant that the world was like a pasture with the gate left open, and that there was nothing stopping you, and you could run and run.
Faith thought that she didn’t have to like them all, but she also recognized that they were in it together—“it” being the way it was for them. For women. The way it had been for centuries. The stuck place. She sang along with them, her voice coming out in a loud quaver. But it didn’t matter that you quavered; it only mattered that you made yourself heard.
The day after Greer Kadetsky had fallen asleep at work and then expressed her work frustrations, Faith had called a meeting in the conference room. They had all sat around the table and she listened as one by one they told her why they had originally come to Loci, and why it felt different there now. They told her about their worries that the summits were elitist, that there was a kind of feel-good feminism in the air.
“I recognize that feminism can’t only be ‘feel-bad,’” said one of the newer hires, “but there’s too much of an emphasis on how everything feels, and less on what it does.”
“These are not shy-person actions, Greer, I’m just saying. They’re something else. Sneaky, maybe.” Coldly, Zee added, “You really know how to act in the face of power. I’ve never put that together before, but it’s true […] You went to work for Faith Frank, the role model, the feminist, and I didn’t. But you know what? I think there are two kinds of feminists. The famous ones, and everyone else. Everyone else, all the people who just quietly go and do what they’re supposed to do, and don’t get a lot of credit for it, and don’t have someone out there every day telling them they’re doing an awesome job. I don’t have a mentor, Greer, and I’ve never had one. But I’ve had different women in my life who I like to be around […] I don’t need their approval. I don’t need their permission. You want to know how often I think about the fact that I didn’t get to work for Faith Frank? Almost never.”
“It must be a burden to you to be the most important person to people who aren’t all that important to you,” he said.
“I’m not sure I agree with your interpretation. I get a lot from them too, remember.”
“What do you get?” he asked. “I’m curious.”
“Well, they keep me in the world,” she said, and that was all she wanted to say.
He took his little kit into the bathroom while she placed sheets on the mattress of the small foldout sofa. This was an era in which sofa beds were frequently opened and unfolded; at this age people were still floating, not entirely landed, still needing places to stay the night sometimes. They were doing what they could, crashing in other places, living extemporaneously. Soon enough, the pace would pick up, the solid matter of life would kick in. Soon enough, sofa beds would stay folded.
Kay wandered around, curious, excited, flipping through the different books on the shelves, finding ones that Greer hadn't lent her but which looked good, then eating from Greer's stash of cashews, swiping a couple of Greer's multivitamins from the big amber bottle on the kitchen counter, as if they might give her the energy, power, and stature that she would need, going forward. Kay went into the den and looked at the soft easy chair there, the reading lamp angled beside it. Sit in the chair, Kay, Greer thought. Lean back and close your eyes. Imagine being me. It's not so great, but imagine it anyway. At Loci, they had all talked loftily about power, creating summits around it as though it was a quantifiable thing that would last forever. But it wouldn't, and you didn't know that when you were just starting out. Greer thought of Cory sitting in his brother's bedroom, far from anything having to do with power, taking Slowy out of his box and placing him nearby on the blue carpet. Slowy blinking, moving an arm, craning his head forward. Power eventually slid away, Greer thought. People did what they could, as powerfully as they could, until they couldn't do it anymore. There wasn't much time. In the end, she thought, the turtle might outlive them all.