Tag Archives: Meg Wolitzer

THE FEMALE PERSUASION by Meg Wolitzer

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer is about Greer Kadetsky, a young woman at a second-rate college in Connecticut who, on a fateful night, attends a lecture by a prominent feminist named Faith Frank. Greer, who has already begun to look at how men treat women on campus with a newly critical and analytical eye, is forever changed by Faith’s lecture, and a few years later, when she is a new graduate with little direction, she reaches out to Frank for advice. Her timing is good; Frank has just shuttered her longstanding feminist magazine and is now launching a speaker series about women’s issues funded by a famous, prickly venture capitalist.

And so, Greer goes off into the world under Faith’s tutelage, learning how to be an adult and how to work in the world. Meanwhile, her high school boyfriend Cory experiences a sad diversion in his own professional plans, while her best friend Zee similarly tries to find her own path while rejecting her parents’ expectations. And Faith herself finds her commitment to her ideals tested in a way that threatens her relationship with Greer.

The Female Persuasion is billed as a novel for the #MeToo era, one that takes on modern day feminism and explores the power constructs that have allowed gender discrimination to persist. But I found The Female Persuasion more successful on a less grand level. Like Wolitzer’s earlier books, The Female Persuasion is a dense, richly detailed chronicle of a personal relationships – romantic, friendship and professional – and how they evolve over time. There are certainly flashes of the more universal themes of feminism and empowerment, but they were not the most persuasive elements of the book. I always appreciate Wolitzer’s rich detail, gentle humor and observant eye, as well as the incredibly realistic world she creates for her characters. That’s what I took away from The Female Persuasion. Greer can be annoying at times – she seems incapable of acting unless something is handed to her – but Faith, Zee and Cory are interesting and memorable characters and I cared about what happened to them.

I listened to The Female Persuasion mostly on audio, which was narrated by Rebecca Lowman. She did an excellent job with a long book and many characters. Her precise, measured delivery was a good match for this detailed, absorbing book.

I went to a Q&A with Meg Wolitzer at Politics & Prose here in DC last week, and here is some of what I learned:

  1. Wolitzer wanted to write about “the person who sees something in you and changes you” and “idealism, the motor that sends you off when you start out”.
  2. In Cory, she wanted to explore one version of doing good and making a difference, but by a male character.
  3. In fiction “what we remember isn’t plot but character”. (For most books, I think that’s true.)
  4. Reading breeds empathy by showing readers how other people live. (Yes!)
  5. She didn’t try to keep up with current events in this novel, though she does refer to the Trump administration at the end as “the big terribleness”.
  6. As for feminism: there are many generations of feminists in this book, and she wanted to explore the conflict between these different ages.
  7. She agrees that this book is about characters, not necessarily the broad swaths of feminism.
  8. She believes in “writing the way you go through your life” and “writing about what obsesses you”. (I love this. It sounds so obvious, but it clearly isn’t always how authors approach their work.)

 

THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer

Judging by the comments on my Facebook page when I posted that I was starting The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, this book inspires strong feelings – positive and negative. Quite a few people said that they were eager to read my review. Clearly this book touched a nerve among a lot of my friends! So, here goes.


I am in the positive feelings camp. I really liked The Interestings. It’s about a group of teenagers who meet at an artsy summer camp in the 70s, and it follows them through their adult lives to the present day. The Interestings (a mostly-ironic name they give themselves on the first night of camp) are made up of Jules, an awkward girl from New Jersey who is funny but intimidated by and self-conscious around her wealthy NY campmates; Ash and Goodman, diametrically opposite brother and sister from a wealthy family; Ethan, a talented but unattractive and awkward animation student; Jonah, a closeted teenager with a famous folk-singer mom; and Cathy Kiplinger, an emotionally needy dancer. For Jules, her unexpected inclusion in the Interestings is life-changing. Her world completely changes when Ethan and Ash take her under their wing, broadening it from her quiet, depressing suburban life to include the gleaming expanse of Ash’s family and New York City.

A few years pass, and the Interestings fracture and winnow down to four, who will remain in each other’s lives for the following 40 years. And during those years, life happens to them. Some are financially successful, some are not. Some partner, some don’t. Longstanding passions remain below the surface, secrets are kept and truths withheld. Health (mental and physical) waxes and wanes. Parents die or become estranged. Children are born – some perfect and some not. These lives aren’t necessarily remarkable, but I did find them interesting, yes, and I grew quite fond of these characters over 450+ pages. I thought Wolitzer did a particularly good job with dealing with Jules’ envy of Ethan’s monetary success, a theme that threads throughout the whole book.

I am trying to guess at what might have irritated some people who read this book – too long? Too sweeping (with big chunks of time unaddressed)? Forrest Gump-y? Characters too whiny? There were a few unrealistic storylines, and some  too-convenient-to-be-believable plot turns that weakened the credibility of the book for me. But I am a fan of Wolitzer’s hyper-detailed writing style. I like the way she covers so much territory in her books. It’s like she looks at modern life through a magnifying glass and includes every little detail she can see within the perimeter of the circle. The Interestings was a faster read for me than The Ten Year Nap (reviewed in 2009) and a much more fulfilling one than The Uncoupling (reviewed in 2011). I just really enjoyed the experience of reading it and getting to know these characters.

In my opinion, The Interestings‘ acclaim is merited. It’s near the top of my list of favorite books so far in 2013. So, EDIWTB readers, which camp are you in? Did you love The Interestings, or did it disappoint you?

 

BEA 2013 Report

bea-logoI am en route home from a whirlwind two days at BEA, which was the overwhelming, amazing experience that it always is. I had a great time walking the floor, going to some publisher parties, and reconnecting with the book blogger community. We have a lot of longevity among us  – this summer, EDIWTB turns 7! I can’t believe it. Most of all, it is just fun to be around so many other people who simply love books.

Some highlights:

  • Breakfast with a bunch of very cool audiobook narrators. I had a chance to ask all of my burning questions about narration, and met some very nice people at the same time. June is Audiobook Month, so look for some audiobook-related content on the blog.
  • Meeting some of my favorite authors, including Lauren Grodstein, Curtis Sittenfeld, Christina Baker Kline, and Meg Wolitzer. Some of them said, “Oh, I know your site!” upon meeting me, which was definitely a thrill. I was too shy to say hi to Tayari Jones, and didn’t want to wait in line for Scott Turow to sign his book (though I did get a copy), but I talked to Rob Sheffield about the Rolling Stones and got a hug from Caroline Leavitt and met Wally Lamb, so that’s good.
  • Hanging out with my host, Nicole of Linus’s Blanket, in her apartment in the beautiful West Village, and talking books late into the night.
  • Getting my daughter’s favorite author, Wendy Mass, to sign her fall book.
  • A lovely breakfast today at the home of Adriana Trigiani, a book blogger favorite who is new to me. She generously welcomed a bunch of us into her beautiful home in the Village this morning for breakfast and conversation.
  • Parties at Penguin, HarperCollins, Workman, and Simon & Schuster – fun!
  • 2 great sessions at BEA – one on Goodreads and a panel on how digital book sales is reviving the backlist market. Laura Lippman and Lizzie Skurnick were on the panel, and they were both entertaining and full of good thoughts on the publishing business.

And, of course, the books.

I have a lot of books making their way to me via media mail. I will do a post with pictures when they arrive. The one I am most excited about is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland, which is due out later this month.

So that’s the quick wrap-up, with more to follow! Oh, and I finished a book, so I will have a review up soon too.

Q&A With Susan Barr-Toman, Author of WHEN LOVE WAS CLEAN UNDERWEAR

First things first. Congratulations to the winner of Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling, which I reviewed on Monday: Tawnya at Drawn to the Flame!

Earlier this week I reviewed an excellent debut novel by Susan Barr-Toman called When Love Was Clean Underwear. Susan was kind enough to answer some questions for me, and her answers were very interesting to read. (I recommend reading them now, then reading the book, and then coming back to read them again. Just don't read the spoiler question before you read the book!)

Here is the Q&A. Thanks, Susan!

Q:  Do you know someone like Lucy? What was your inspiration for her character?

A: I do know people like Lucy, and I have had many people come up to me after readings to tell me the same. When I was writing the novel, people kept saying, “you have to make Lucy younger,” or “something terribly must happen for her to be a virgin at 30.”  People assume everyone is like them or like characters on sitcoms.  There are people who live with their parents.  There are people who hold on to their virginity for many reasons.  In this case Lucy is a practicing Catholic, and thanks to her mother she also has poor self-esteem.  And as you know, her mother has issues.

However, this is not an autobiographical novel.  My mother is alive and well and never smoked a cigarette in her life.  I was not a virgin at 30.  I was married at 27, and no man is that patient. 

Q: The South Philadelphia neighborhood that Lucy lives in plays a large role in your book. How did you pick the setting?

A: Actually South Philadelphia was the inspiration for the novel.  I heard this story about a young couple who weren’t from South Philadelphia, but had bought a row home there.  Since the house had been in the family for generations and had not been updated, they bought it for a low price with the plan to gut it.  What they didn’t know is that they had bought the house of a deceased woman whose sisters lived on either side.  So they were constantly harassed by the sisters each time they changed anything. 

I began to wonder who could move into that house and be intimidated by these women. That’s where Lucy came from.  She’s a woman who grew up in a nearby neighborhood and understands tradition.  She has lived in the same house her whole life, the house her father was raised in, and only moves out against her will.

I wanted to capture the family feel of the neighborhood – the nosiness, the unsolicited advice, but also, the eagerness to know, to help. 
 
Q: I am in awe of people who write novels – it seems so overwhelming to me. When do you write, and how do you stay disciplined? How long did When Love Was Clean Underwear take to write?

A: I began writing in earnest when I was pregnant with my first child and I took a continuing education class called “Write Your Novel Now.”  At the beginning of the class, the instructor asked why each of us was there.  My reason – I didn’t want to be a stage mom.  I’d always wanted to write and always found reasons not to.  I didn’t want to be one of those people who pushed her child to fulfill her dreams.  I wanted to be able to say, pursue your dreams, follow your bliss, and actually be an example of that. 

WLWCU was written when I had two young children at home. In the beginning, I would write during my son’s morning nap, and he was a wonderfully consistent napper.  During his afternoon nap, I would take care of the household tasks.  When he switched to one nap a day, let’s just say, we didn’t have company over much. 

There was something about having that limited time to get it done.  Before kids, I always thought I needed large spans of time to do any kind of real work.  For most of us, those long spans never come, and you have to learn to squeeze in the work.   When I was expecting my daughter, I was very motivated to finish a draft of the novel, knowing that with two my time would be even more limited.

All and all, it took about eight years.
 
Q: Are you writing a second novel now?

A: Yes.  I’m working on my second novel and hope to finish it this year.  It’s the story of a friendship between two couples who met in college.  Ten years later as they are about to start families, secrets come out and loyalties shift. 

I also continue to write short stories. My story “Town Watch” will be published in an anthology called South Philly Fiction this fall.   But really, I do venture into other parts of Philly in my fiction.

Q: There are so few redeemable characters in the book, yet it was such a pleasure to read. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about human nature?

A: I don’t see the characters as unredeemable, so much as flawed. Lucy is so malleable and the other characters recognize that.  They see an opportunity to turn her into what they think she should be, into what they need her to be. Flawed as they are, each of them wants to be loved and to love.  Just like Lucy.  Just like all of us.  So yes, I am optimistic about human nature. 
 
Q: ****Spoiler Alert!*** OK, I have to know… Tony or Jack? Or does Lucy reject them both? ***Spoiler Alert!***

A: At the end of the novel, Lucy says she will call Jack the next day.  So it isn’t over.  When I was in the midst of writing the novel, I wasn’t sure exactly how it would end, but I knew Lucy would be alone and it would be a good thing.

But remember, Tony is upfront about what he wants, why he loves Lucy.  He pursues her.  Jack knew Lucy for years and didn’t do anything until Marge died.  Still it’s Lucy, Lucy! who has to make the first move.  So Jack needs to work on being worthy.  Of course, who wouldn’t love a man who wants to do home improvement projects and is a great kisser?

 

THE UNCOUPLING by Meg Wolitzer

Uncoupling The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer, is the second book I have read by this author (here is my review of The Ten Year Nap), and it's an equally observant and witty (though ultimately flawed) commentary on modern domestic life. The story is about a New Jersey suburb and the drama teacher who arrives at the high school and decides to stage the Greek drama Lysistrata, which is about what happens when the women of a community withhold sex from their husbands in order to get them to stop fighting a war.

In The Uncoupling, the women involved in the play, from its actresses to their mothers to the faculty at the school, ultimately find themselves under a spell similar to the one that Lysistrata cast in her play – they lose all physical passion and shut out their husbands both emotionally and physically. They don't talk about it, though, so unlike in Lysistrata, the women in The Uncoupling have no idea what is happening to them, and believe themselves to be alone.

Wolitzer is a beautiful writer – something I learned in The Ten Year Nap. She's astute and observant, and funny too. Here is a passage I liked about how parents take their kids to task for spending too much time online, while they themselves do the same:

All of which forced real-life parents to make curdled and no doubt ignorant remarks about what their kids were missing, even as the parents themselves were drawn to their own screens, where they sat slack every night before a radiant blast.  As the hours disappeared, sometimes they purchased slippers; or read about a newly discovered species of lizard; or about a disease they feared they had; or about the unmysterious wars that quietly continued in Iraq and Afghanistan, as unseen as fires burning underground.  Leanne had recently remarked that if you wanted to get to know someone's unconscious, all you had to do was take a look at everything they had looked at and done on the Intenet over the course of a couple of hours when they were all alone.

Wolitzer's cast – a fortysomething couple who both teach at the high school, their daughter and her boyfriend (the son of the drama teacher), the beautiful and many-partnered guidance counselor, the overweight and long-married college advisor, just to name a few – is richly textured. The first half of the book, when these characters were introduced, was my favorite. Later, as Wolitzer injected magical realism and the drama teacher's spell took hold, I started to enjoy the book less. I found a subplot involving the play's star and her own use of Lysistrata's methods to protest our current war to be unconvincing and unncessary, and I agree with other reviewers that the end of the book tied up too neatly. There was enough to go on here, just in the depiction of the relationships and the ways in which the play affected them, that the extras were unnecessary and, in my opinion, took away from the book.

I am also not a big fan of magical realism – I like my books very literal. I don't think the magical realism was necessary here, and was instead a distraction for me.

While I was disappointed in the book when I finished it, due to the unsatisfying ending and the needless flourishes, I am still glad that I read it. I love Wolitzer's writing, and thoroughly enjoyed these characters and the suburban life Wolitzer created for them. I'd recommend The Uncoupling despite its flaws.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for selecting me to be a part of The Uncoupling book tour and to Riverhead Books for providing me a review copy of the book. I am the second to last stop on this book tour – here's a full list of all of the blogs that have reviewed The Uncoupling on the tour.

Are you interested in reading The Uncoupling? I have a copy to give away, thanks to Riverhead. Leave me a comment here and I will pick a name at random on Friday, April 29.

THE TEN YEAR MAP by Meg Wolitzer

Nap I just finished Meg Wolitzer's The Ten Year Nap. I know that I am a slow reader, but for some reason, this book took me a long time to finish. I am not sure why – it's not a terribly heavy book, and Meg Wolitzer is a very good writer. And it's about a topic of interest to me – the eternal debate about staying home with kids vs. going back to work.

The Ten Year Nap is about a group of four stay-at-home mothers in New York. The titular "ten year nap" represents the years that these moms have spent mothering, as opposed to whatever it is they were doing before they became moms. There's not a whole lot of plot in The Ten Year Nap, but Wolitzer is an expert observer of modern urban parenthood, and her descriptions and occasional gentle mocking of her self-absorbed subjects are astute and at times quite entertaining. I found myself dogearing many pages in this book, nodding and laughing as I read passages that struck me as particularly accurate. Like this one:

Women who worked were exhausted; women who didn't work were exhausted. There was no cure for the oceanic exhaustion that overwhelmed them. If you were a working mother you would always lose in some way, and if you were a full-time mother you would lose too. Everyone wanted something from you; you were hit up the moment you rose from your bed. Everyone hung on you, asking for some thing, reminding you of what you owed them, and though the middle of each school day or workday seemed to be open and available, that wasnt the way it felt.

Or this one:

There were always alternatives to this kind of draining urban life. If you were determined to stay in the area, you could move to one of the other boroughs, as all the practical or adventurous people did, and you could live there decently. Early on, Amy knew couples who had nosed deep into neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The middle class extended its reach, reconfigured its range of territories. Narrow art galleries and cybercafes grew on patches of street beside check-cashing stores and rundown walk-in dentistry centers. Strollers abounded on craggy sidewalks in the steep shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge. Those neighborhoods were overrun with families now, and if the new residents were incidentally knocking out the low-income dwellers, they couldn't really think too much about it; they would surely become squeamish, and then the whole plan would fall apart.

Wolitzer does an admirable job of getting in the heads of both SAHMs and working moms, and exploring the insecurities and hidden desires each type of mother experiences. She doesn't really judge these four women, and in the end, two of the moms go back to work, while two decide to remain SAHMs. She's generally sympathetic to both groups, perhaps because she grasps the reality – that there is no perfect solution. (I did find the title to be somewhat insulting to SAHMs – as if mothering is akin to napping, or checking out from life.)

The Ten Year Nap is not perfect, though. It's slow. Not much happens to propel the plot – and the reader's engagement – forward. I enjoyed reading it, but it didn't grab me and suck me in the way I'd hoped it would, given the subject matter. There are some shorter chapters sprinked throughout that offer the perspective of some women in other geographic areas and/or times of life (all of which had some connection to the main four), and I thought these had mixed success.

I agree whole-heartedly with this review from Book-Blog:

My reaction to the book is mixed. On the one hand, Wolitzer is an excellent writer, peppering her pages with the telling detail, so that individual scenes come alive. Her descriptions can be lovely. And in fact she captures well the conflicted feelings of the modern stay-at-home mom–the discomfort with not contributing something quantifiable to the family coupled with ambivalence about rejoining the work force. That said, the book is vaguely depressing. Wolitzer's women seem to be perpetually morose and unsatisfied, unable to recognize that their lives really aren't that bad. And although they do come across as three-dimensional characters, it's very hard to care about any of them. Nor does the book offer much by way of plot. For all its lovely writing the novel is a chore to get through. I hate to say it, but literally only ten pages from the end I thought I might not have the stamina to finish it.

Yes, exactly. And another thing kept going through my mind - as a working mom who has lived in NY and has many friends still there, I could relate to these characters and enjoyed hearing about them. But I am not sure who else would like this book, other than other moms like me.

I'd love to hear from EDIWTB readers who have read The Ten Year Nap. Poking around online, I see that user reviews are mixed, and I am not surprised. I enjoyed it, and am glad I read it, but I can see why people might have gotten frustrated with it.

Here are some other blog reviews to check out:

Nomad Reader

Booking Mama

Becky Black Powell

Books Ahoy!

A Novel Read