It’s because it’s the land of the loner that the United States is so loved or loathed. Yet to me the most beguiling novels that have zipped across the Atlantic in the past half-century or so are mostly about groups, specifically groups on campus, usually a rather classy campus at that. Mary McCarthy’s Group were at Vassar; Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is set in an elite liberal arts college in Vermont. Even The Catcher in the Rye, though legendary as a portrait of moody adolescence, is also a brilliant picture of life at the sort of college Salinger himself went to.
But no novelist I can think of has majored on the group portrait with quite such verve, wit and sympathy as Meg Wolitzer. Her previous novel, The Interestings (2014), followed the lives of a self-adoring clique at a socialist summer camp. The Ten-Year Nap (2008) tracked four New York friends who have just woken up from a decade of getting married and having babies. The Position (2005), perhaps the funniest of them, recounts the fractured life stories of the Mellow children, whose super-liberal parents wrote a runaway bestseller called Pleasuring, which featured tasteful pastel illustrations of their lovemaking.
Wolitzer’s latest excursion into the promises and pitfalls of liberation begins at Ryland, a rather dim college in southern Connecticut. Greer Kadetsky, an idealistic freshman, is bewitched by a lecture given by Faith Frank, the irresistible doyenne of old-style feminism, and she follows this elegant and compelling guru through the struggles of her later years. Like many Wolitzer characters, Greer and her best friend Zee Eisenstat believe that they were born to save the world, and are repeatedly puzzled when they discover how reluctant the world is to be saved and how full it is of obnoxious characters like the serial groper Darren Tinzler.
When Tinzler has to appear before a #MeToo college tribunal without his invariable baseball cap, ‘his flat, fair hair looked like a circle of lawn that had been trapped and left to die under a kiddie pool’. Wolitzer is equally adept at skewering bien-pensant, tight-arsed characters like the Eisenstat parents who are both judges in Westchester County:
The Eisenstat family car was a genteel, boxy Volvo, scented lightly with machine oil. As if to further fortify that this was a car belonging to someone’s parents, on the backseat was a splayed-open, wavy, crisp old copy of Scientific American and a chunky purple folding umbrella still in its matching sleeve.
How delicately Wolitzer slides from comedy to tragedy and back again, and from class to class. Greer’s boyfriend, Cory Pinto, comes from a hardscrabble Latino family and has a captivating much younger brother, Alby, who is an infant prodigy on the lines of Salinger’s Glass children. Alby is run over and killed by their mother when she is backing out of their driveway. She couldn’t possibly have seen him, because Alby was on all fours looking for his pet turtle Slowy.
This appalling event is nobody’s fault, but, not surprisingly, it shatters the family. The father decamps to Lisbon, the mother retires to bed, and Cory gives up his high-flying career in finance and comes home to keep house for her. Greer and Cory diverge, then converge again. Just as the book seems destined to take a bitter turn, it turns sweet again, and vice-versa. Wolitzer is never seduced by the cheap pay-off. Things come round again, not to where they were before, but not necessarily for better or worse. Her sense of life’s uncertainties is as acute as her ear for humbug.
In the same way, Greer and Zee are disillusioned by the shoddy compromises Faith Frank has to make to keep her show on the road, but they never lose faith in the cause. As in all Wolitzer’s novels, among the wicked wisecracking there is a marvellous evenness of sympathy. Along with the other wonderful American women writers at work now — Jane Smiley and Jennifer Egan for starters — she has that elusive quality for which humanity is too portentous a word and which the high Victorian novelists possessed (and which some of the big male beasts of American fiction so signally lack). If Thackeray were writing a novel about feminism today, it would, I think, be not unlike The Female Persuasion.