The Interestings  – ★★★★1/2
Meg Wolitzer is an American novelist known for such books as The Wife  and The Ten-Year Nap . Her novel The Interestings is also a bestseller which is as impressive. In this book, the central stage first take six teenagers: (i) awkward, but funny Jules, our main heroine; (ii) lovable and charming Ash; (iii) Ash’s handsome, but slightly troubled brother Goodman; (iv) not particularly attractive, but friendly and ingenious Ethan; (v) dreamy and artistic Jonah; (vi) and beautiful and emotional Cathy. How their first summer at an artsy camp Spirit-in-the-Woods and future inter-relationships develop, as they become adults in the fast-changing world, is the focus of this very reflective, character-driven book. The Interestings is almost nostalgic, slightly dreamy, in quality book filled with emotions, longings and reflections, making the reader pose and reflect as they step into the lives of six people who all first long to be better than they are – or, interesting – but whose different life choices, talent, past and backgrounds ultimately determine their place in the world. It becomes harder for them to preserve their feelings of love and friendship for each other, when societal pressures, financial success, lifestyle changes and losses (as well as ensued envy, hurt and disillusionment) start to dictate their lives, attitudes and perceptions, dividing the once close group of friends.
It is possible to roughly discern three timeframes in which the story is set – the summer of 1974 when the Wolf siblings started to include Jules in their group, the college and post-college life of the group in the 1980s and early 1990s, and their married life, when some of the characters already have children of their own. The best part of The Interestings is probably the beginning. We are introduced to a group “The Interestings” through an awkward girl on a scholarship called Jules who “infiltrates” a cool clique at a summer camp for artistic children: “on a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time. They were only fifteen, sixteen, and they began to call themselves the name with tentative irony” [Wolitzer, 2013: 3]. Except from Jules, the teenagers in the group are all privileged, rich kids who want to make it big as artists when they become adults – Goodman dreams of becoming an architect; Cathy sees her dancing career unfolding before her; Ethan is considered to be a very talented comics artist, who draws amazingly funny cartoons; Jonah has a talent for music; and Ash wants to be a director. Jules is an odd one out, but she also aspires to be an actress. In a beautifully evocative language, Wolitzer paints us a dreamy picture of one carefree summer at this camp where the hopeful, self-absorbed teenagers start to form special friendships and become romantically linked as they indulge in creative activities – “…they all seduced each other with greatness, or with the assumption of eventual greatness. Greatness-in-waiting” [Wolitzer, 2013: 9]. Ethan becomes attracted to Jules, who sees him only as her friend (being slightly repelled by his looks), and Goodman and Cathy find many things to share with each.
The Interestings is an introspective book. It does not much concern itself with “action” or a linear plot, but rather tells of particular moments and events in the lives of the six close friends. There is much reflection in the novel. If, at first, The Interestings is a novel about carefree teenagers who have artistic ambitions, the story then jumps years, and we get to see how the lives of these people changed as they had to adapt to the world of money and connections, where mere hopes and altruism are often disregarded. And, we really get engrossed in their lives – Meg Wolitzer makes sure that we do. By focusing on each of the characters in turn, the author provides us with a real insight into the psychology of each character, their desires and hopes for this life. The characters are not perfect, but each strives to be better and find their own path in life, which will make them happy. We find out most about Jules, who comes from a poorer, disadvantaged family that experienced a tragedy, but who grows up to become a confident person after she starts to associate herself with richer and “cooler” Ash Wolf, her close friend. Ash and her brother Goodman live in a lavish apartment complex in central New York City, and the touching friendship between Ash and Jules warm the pages of the book.
Cracks soon appear in the group’s impenetrable shield as time rushes forward for the teenagers. The mystery between one encounter between the duo of characters leads to a lasting change in the group’s dynamics, and others also experience the consequences of the societal division between them as some of the characters get more financially and publicly successful than others. Envy, disillusionment and disappointment set in for some as they start to compare their lifestyles to those of their friends, while Jonah, who is attracted to men, finds his world changing with the advancement of all the AIDS fears in the 1980s: “they had all come up together in New York City, but now the imbalance between the couples was suddenly, jarringly evident”… “slowly, the movement away from the creative, and toward the creativity of money, was becoming increasingly visible”…”all around them, making money, and wanting to make money, had grown infinitely more reputable” [Wolitzer, 2013: 236]. If Jules and Jonah battle with their past and try to understand who they are supposed to be, Ash and Goodman grow up in a privileged environment where they face a different kind of pressure – the pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations of them being very talented and successful people. Kind and self-sacrificing Ethan probably acts as a guide for the group and a much needed “torchbearer” that illuminates everyone else’s dark and twisty paths in lives.
The final part of the book focuses on the characters’ family life with their own children and, in this final part, the feeling is that one can skip pages and still find the same melodramatic, meandering overview of the issues the author introduced at the start of the book. In the final part, Wolitzer hints at “reconciliation” and “reunions”, with the friends already having passed the stage of “conflict”, but she still manages “to rescue” her story from a slump since there is still this emotional thread running through the events and moments, with the story still being told in the same evocative language that emphases the feelings of longing, quiet desperation, and hope for the future; emotional pain stemming from lost chances, life regrets and unfulfilled love mixes with the feelings of self-acceptance and gratefulness for the present moment.
The Interestings is also, perhaps, too long, and much like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life , the realism in the book is interjected by some unrealistic turns of events, especially when something sudden happens to the group. At numerous points throughout the book, there is also a feeling that the plot does not go anywhere or a feeling that the author, having started the novel well with dreamy teenagers at a summer camp, does not really know where to march from there. The book seems to also suffer from its own ambition, trying to focus on many characters, their life reflections and changing inter-relationships, while also trying to include some historical context, with the story spanning from 1974 to “the 2001 World Trade Centre destruction”, and beyond [Wolitzer, 2013: 364]. Overall, the book still ends up being more or less cohesive since the point is to present an overview of life situations, emphasising the characters’ inner development and growth as they mature and become more accepting of themselves and those around them.
To conclude, it can be said that, although The Interestings suffers from its own ambition and gets melodramatic in its second part, it is still an intelligent, intricate, vividly-descriptive, multi-themed novel, which is also emotional and beautifully-written. The characters learn their lessons the hard way as they navigate the often complicated thing called life. The six people may have started as dreamers in some Figland, but they are then tested to the very limits of their selflessness and self-acceptance as their strong friendship ties and romantic love go head-to-head with talent, ambition, competition, money, loss and disappointment.