Wolitzer’s got a lot on her mind in this novel which follows young college student Greer Kadetzky as she falls under the sway of feminist icon Faith Frank and joins Faith’s new foundation on the ground floor. The book has a very typical set-up then and you’d be forgiven for thinking this is going to be some sort of screed about what “true” feminism is. But it’s far more complicated than that and you’ll ultimately leave the book thinking more about the characters than about the issues. While Wolitzer is working with ideas about feminism and capitalism and the endless cycle of generational replacement, her character work is what really stays with you. As we watch Greer grow and change over a period of years, we see both our original perception of Faith and Faith herself morph in front of us. Some of the side characters also come thrillingly to life. When reading a book that’s nominally about a feminist coming of age story, one would tend to expect a character like Cory, Greer’s college boyfriend, to be used somewhat poorly, probably mainly as a character development ploy for Greer, but Wolitzer is savvy and profound and Cory’s surprising depth as a character is mirrored by the surprise profundities of his story, a journey of disillusionment and grief that is, in some ways, even more painful than Greer’s. Wolitzer has crafted a really, really fine novel here, one that is compulsively readable, not necessarily because of the plot, but because of the characters. It is, in some degree, that you want to see “what happens” to the characters, but in an interior, emotional way, not simply the hoops the plot is going to put them through. At nearly 450 pages, the book never really flags and it kept me turning pages at a really fast pace. The book’s one flaw is the ending. It has a really beautiful, ambiguous ending but then proceeds to continue for a solid ten to fifteen pages after it and in that final chapter, which should have been entirely removed in my opinion, Wolitzer ties up every character in a neat little bow and has Greer give a monologue that goes on for a couple of pages and kind of encapsulates all of the themes of the book. Far better if Wolitzer had just let us end on a moment of profound and beautiful intimacy and draw our own conclusions. Whiffing the ending isn’t a small thing, particularly when it’s as labored as this one is, but still, the book as a whole is brilliant and compelling so it’s hard for me to downgrade it too much. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – beautifully characterized and emotionally effecting, this smart, savvy novel is both a page-turner and a thought-provoking piece of literature. 3 ½ stars.