Book Talk: THE INTERESTINGS, by Meg Wolitzer

THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer, via (affiliate link)
The Interestings: A Novel
Meg Wolitzer (Facebook)
Riverhead (2014), Trade paper (ISBN 1594488398 / 9781594632341)
Fiction, 481 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (iBooks edition)

I’ve been feeling for a while that fiction doesn’t call to me the way it used to, and that more of the books I get excited about reading these days are some variety of nonfiction. At this point, with fiction, I’m less inclined to try new-to-me authors without solid recommendations, but I still give new books by authors I already know and like a second look. Meg Wolitzer definitely falls into that camp, and what I heard about The Interestings sounded like it just might live up to its title. This is a novel that contains many of my favorite fictional elements–

  • multiple perspectives from a group of characters
  • characters in my own age range
  • following those characters over a long time period, with extra points for scenes occurring during their 1970s/1980s youth
  • New York City

–and they’re being put to work by the provocative Meg Wolitzer. I was in.
The Interestings centers on a half-dozen teenagers who meet at an summer arts camp in the mid–1970s and follows them through more than thirty years of the ebb and flow of their connections to one another. Julie Jacobson–soon to be known as “Jules”–is new to the camp in the summer of 1974, and never quite loses her sense of wonder at being welcomed into the group that’s just named itself “The Interestings,” because she’s quite certain she’s the least interesting of them all:

“’From this day forward, because we are clearly the most interesting people who ever fucking lived,’ said Ethan, ‘because we are just so fucking compelling, our brains swollen with intellectual thoughts, let us be known as the Interestings.’”

(And because these are fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, they bestow this name upon themselves without irony–they believe it, and the whole world is ahead of them.)

If the group is viewed objectively and its members compared to one another over time, Jules is probably not wrong about her place within it. The two with the strongest artistic drive, Ethan and Ash–who also become Jules’ closest friends–not only achieve success in their respective fields of animation and theater, they marry each other. Jonah, who may be the most naturally gifted, sets aside music for MIT and engineering while nursing the childhood trauma he’s never shared with his Interesting friends; and the whole group becomes involved in the trauma that eventually breaks it up, cutting ties with dancing Cathy and sending Ash’s brother Goodman underground. And Jules, after college and a brief and unsuccessful career as a comic actress, becomes a social worker married to a depressive ultrasound technician.

Writing in the third person throughout, Wolitzer shifts viewpoints between Jules, Ethan, and Jonah; this seems to indicate which characters shefinds most interesting. However, the split is nowhere close to even; it’s Jules’ story more than anyone else’s, and it seems fitting to me that most of the time, the Interestings are seen through the eyes of the member who feels most on the fringes of the group. Through Jules, Wolitzer explores the place of shared history in holding long-term friendships together despite conflicted emotions–particularly the mix of love and envy–and diverging life paths. And from Jules’ husband Dennis, who truly is on the fringes, we get this:

“…Your friends. Mr. Loser Gold Tooth, and his lying sister with her precious plays that I have never understood, and Ethan the magnificent, all of whom you’ve always worshipped beyond anything or anyone else on earth. And the thing is: They’re not that interesting.…And you’re still there with them, so much more invested in their story than you are in ours. …Specialness–everyone wants it. But Jesus, it it the most essential thing there is?”

It feels like Wolitzer is having Dennis give voice to one possible reaction to The Interestings as a whole. It’s clear throughout the novel that Jules finds her friends terribly interesting people–far more interesting than she herself, at any rate–but it’s not always so clear exactly why we should share her interest in them. I particularly felt this way about Ash–even as other characters extolled her virtues, she came across to me as generally decent, clearly overprivileged, and just not all that remarkable. Perhaps that’s intentional on Wolitzer’s part, though, and part of the novel’s point. In any case, I found Jules the most interesting of the Interestings.

The Interestings explores the premise that what we find interesting in other people as teens may not necessarily be what interests us as adults; interesting teens don’t necessarily become interesting adults; and our history with people–our knowledge of who they were–can make it difficult for us to see clearly who they become. The novel is absorbing, ambitious, and provocative. I may be reading less fiction lately, but when I do read it, I want fiction like this.

Rating: 4 of 5

THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer: book discussion on The 3 Rs Blog

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Book description, from the publisher’s website:

The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge. 

The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken. 

Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.

From Chapter One:

“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. Julie Jacobson, an outsider and possibly even a freak, had been invited in for obscure reasons, and now she sat in a corner on the unswept floor and attempted to position herself so she would appear unobtrusive yet not pathetic, which was a difficult balance. The teepee, designed ingeniously though built cheaply, was airless on nights like this one, when there was no wind to push in through the screens. Julie Jacobson longed to unfold a leg or do the side-to-side motion with her jaw that sometimes set off a gratifying series of tiny percussive sounds inside her skull. But if she called attention to herself in any way now, someone might start to wonder why she was here; and really, she knew, she had no reason to be here at all. It had been miraculous when Ash Wolf had nodded to her earlier in the night at the row of sinks and asked if she wanted to come join her and some of the others later. Some of the others. Even that wording was thrilling.”

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