The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Six teenagers gather together at an arts camp in the Berkshires in 1974, the year that Nixon is ousted from office. There is Ethan Figman, an unattractive yet outgoing boy who dreams of being a cartoonist; Jonah Bay, the handsome son of a famous folk singer; Cathy Kiplinger, an emotional and womanly dancer; Goodman and Ash Wolf, a brother and sister pair who seem to have it all; and lastly, Jules Jacobson, a scholarship camper who feels like an outsider amidst this seemingly sophisticated New York bunch. They decide to call their group the “Interestings” and so begins Meg Wolitzer’s epic novel, which follows this group of six through forty some-odd years of their lives.
Wolitzer’s writing is excellent. She does a masterful job of narrating the stories of the six characters. The book traces the paths of the friends over a forty year period and jumps between past and present and between characters, yet it does so very fluidly and with no confusion to the reader. While Wolitzer has crafted a wonderfully ambitious novel, my only criticism is that at times it seems as though she’s trying a tad too hard to incorporate all that’s gone amiss in society in the past forty years. She’s thrown in all kinds of hot-button issues: political disenchantment, third-world labour exploitation, AIDS, depression, cancer, homosexuality, autism, cult indoctrination. It doesn’t necessarily distract from the story; it just feels like a bit much.
Besides constructing a good tale, Wolitzer also makes extremely astute observations about her characters and the relationships between them. This is ultimately a book about relationships: the bonds between friends, between family members, between spouses. Wolitzer’s writing is biting and on the mark. For instance, there is a point at which Jules realizes that her friends Ethan and Ash are so much more successful than Jules and her husband Dennis can ever hope to be. At a dinner party, Wolitzer notes that “Jules and Dennis were the odd ones out that night; everyone else was inside a circle, an enclosure, a walk-in refrigerator of wealth and importance.” (Ethan and Ash had recently acquired a walk-in refrigerator and Jules saw it as a symbol of their new-found prosperity).
The book is also about how the life that we imagine for ourselves at age 15 and feeling invincible is unlikely to be the life that we end up with. Wolitzer continuously questions how we come to terms with that. As the main focus of the narrative, Jules’ life encapsulates this theme. The camp made her feel as though she was special, yet as an adult, she struggles: she contends with a depressed husband, a struggling therapy practice, little money and she is envious of her friends, Ash and Ethan, who seem the epitome of success. Her husband Dennis provides a crucial counterpoint since he has no problem being ordinary, whereas Jules struggles with her expectation of being extraordinary while having turned out to be ordinary as well. At one point, Dennis tells Jules about the camp:
It made you feel special. What do I know – maybe it actually made you special. And specialness – everyone wants it. But Jesus, is it the most essential thing there is? Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do – kill themselves? Is that what I should do?
The book ends on somewhat of a depressing note, but at the same time, Jules ultimately comes to terms with the fact that her life, while different than she expected, is special nonetheless. The very last sentence of the book acknowledges the realization that while life doesn’t necessarily turn out the way that we imagined, it’s still an exciting ride:
And didn’t it always go like that – body parts not quite lining up the way you wanted them to, all of it a bit off, as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.