MEG WOLITZER’S TWELFTH NOVEL has come out with exquisite timing in this post-Weinstein #Me Too era. Which means that The Female Persuasion, which unfolds after its clever, shy heroine – Greer – is horrifically groped by a freshman at a mediocre Connecticut college frat party, is being hailed as having presciently nailed the feminist zeitgeist.

It emerges that this obnoxious youth is a serial sexual predator. Other young women students reveal similar abusive encounters with him and he is reported to the college authorities. The disciplinary committee allows him to remain on campus on condition that he has counselling with an impulse-control therapist. Wrist gently slapped.

The incident raises Greer’s consciousness after she attends a talk given by a glamorous, suede-booted, once-famous 1980s’ feminist, Faith Frank – “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem.” Frank changes Greer’s life.

The Female Persuasion is not so much a coming-of-age novel as a coming-into-her-life story. Faith becomes Greer’s mentor as she progresses from unconfident, hot-faced girl with a faint “indoor voice” to feminist activist and best-selling author of Outdoor Voices. Wolitzer’s astutely observed, incisively-written, wise-cracking novel ends in 2019 during “the big terribleness.”

We meet in the London flat where she is staying, and as the 59-year-old, Manhattan-based writer wearily acknowledges, the timing of the publication of a novel that she spent three years writing could either be a curse or a blessing. It depends on your point of view, although the majority of American reviewers hailed it as “a feminist masterpiece – a blockbuster” on its April publication. The film rights have been sold to Nicole Kidman.

“I have been thinking of the issues and the ideas raised in this book for a very long time,” says Wolitzer, whose 2003 novel, The Wife, has been adapted into a Hollywood movie, starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, which will be released in August. “You know, nothing is new to this moment, whether we are talking about misogyny, female power, friendship, betrayal, mentorship.” Nevertheless, she imagined while writing the book that it would be published in a world where the United States would have its first female president. Now, she sighs, we are in this dark, depressing time, “the big terribleness that is Trump” and she had to do a last-minute rewrite of the ending.

Still, the questions she raises have become more and more pressing. “You never want to be writing a novel for the 24-hour news cycle. This book is so different from the hot take of the moment – I am more into the warm take! – and the headlines. It is not that I don’t believe that fiction is urgent – of course it is but it can slow down and look at what is happening in a less fevered way. The #MeToo debate is so fast-moving. It’s an avalanche! While we sit here, there will be yet another revelation.” (Indeed, there was: later that day Weinstein was indicted on rape and criminal sex act charges in New York.)

In one of those chin-stroking reviews for which the New Yorker is so renowned, critic Alexandra Schwartz noted: “The risk for a novel that tries to capture the zeitgeist is that the zeitgeist is liable to shift at any moment. Indeed, the timeliness of Wolitzer’s subject, initially such a boon to the novel, ultimately deals it a major blow.”

Wolitzer, who is married to science writer Richard Panek, with whom she has two grown-up sons, sighs heavily again when we discuss this since she had no intention of “capturing the zeitgeist.”

“People have even asked me if I started the book after the #Me Too moment! Sure, I went into a room with lots of people all called Meg Wolitzer and said, ‘Go!’ Writing a book is a slow thing. I write about what I’m thinking about all the time. When I started The Female Persuasion in 2014, it was a slower time, but I was merely doing what I’ve done for the past 30 years, writing about the things that interest and concern me most. So, yes, I’m ambivalent about the timing of the book’s release. But this novel is not about one particular moment; I certainly didn’t write it that way. This is a story I wanted to tell, about female power and ambivalence towards it, as well as the story of the awakening of a young woman.”

Brooklyn-born and raised in the Long Island suburbs, Wolitzer was always “woke” – as the current cliche has it. “My mother, Hilma, is a novelist. She’s 88-years-old and has never stopped writing. She was very affected by feminism when my older sister, Nancy, and I were growing up. We saw feminism in action in our home. (Our father, Morton, was a psychologist, and he’s also 88, by the way, and they are both well and absolutely wonderful.) My mother is working on another novel at the moment.

“I saw her struggle because she didn’t go to college. Her parents did not believe in higher education for women but she was an autodidact and was very, very encouraged by other women, who said, ‘Try it. Do it.’ She began publishing in the ‘70s. It shows how sexist things were back then – well, they still are! – because she got reviews that said, ‘Housewife turns novelist’ as if she went into a phone booth and changed out of her apron into a uniform.

“When I was growing up, I saw how she and other women were affected by this powerful movement, second-wave feminism. So I connected with that and I filed it away. Today, I am very moved by the stories of younger people, and the boldness that I see in feminism now. What has surprised me about the current movement is the way it’s sharpened and coalesced so quickly. As a novelist, I look at it and I wonder, ‘What is going on here?’ I have this feeling that it’s part of a chain of voices but at the moment there is so much heat around it.”

We talk at length about female mentors, friendship and kindness -- her bestselling novel The Interestings (2013) relates the story of a friendship between two women who meet as children at a socialist summer camp. When it zoomed up the bestseller lists, a friend joked that she was “a 30-year overnight success.” As for her mentors, The Female Persuasion is dedicated to eight women, including Hilma, novelist Mary Gordon and the late, great Nora Ephron, one of the most significant women in Wolitzer’s life. Ephron made her directorial debut when she filmed Wolitzer’s 1988 novel, This Is My Life, in 1992, which has a stand-up comic heroine struggling to bring up her children and make a life for herself. (Lena Dunham is a big fan of the movie.)

“Nora was remarkable, a huge influence on me. She gave me a lot of attention. Inspirational! It took her years to get that film made; it really was a labour of love. She invited me to be part of the whole thing and it was very exciting. At a film festival, I met Tom Hanks and he told me he chose to do Sleepless in Seattle because of that movie. Nora was indefatigable. She got it made,” says Wolitzer who published her first novel, Sleepwalking, in 1981, after graduating from Brown University.

“She was always the person you wanted to show your work to. She would call me up after I’d given her a book and say the most wonderful, helpful things. She was so encouraging, a great enthusiast. I really, really miss her.” Another mentor was Gordon. “I took a class from her in college and she’s become a friend. When she told our class, ‘Only write what is important,” I was shocked, which is weird now because it was the best piece of advice I ever got. What she really meant is, only write what it is important [itals]to you[end itals].”

What is important to Wolitzer is her desire to write about women’s lives and families, so she’s often categorised as “a women’s writer.” In 2012 she wrote a brilliant essay for the New York Times, The Second Shelf – “that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasising relationships and the interior lives of women are relegated.” Why, she asked, is pink-jacketed women’s ‘domestic’ fiction so often taken less seriously than men’s?”

“Domestic fiction!” she exclaims. “Don’t get me started.” Finally, what about that title The Female Persuasion? A hostage to fortune? “Oh, no. It’s deliberate. I just had a sense that this was a book about the ways that we persuade one another – there’s a wonderful pun in there, too. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a book out there already called The Female Persuasion.” Well, there is now.

The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer (Chatto, £14.99).