The Interestings of Meg Wolitzer’s ninth novel are a group of friends who meet as young teens at a summer camp in the 1970s, where their creativity is nurtured, their sexuality starts to bloom, and – for some of them – the entire pattern of the rest of their lives will be set. Julie Jacobson, a shy girl whose father has recently died, is offhandedly referred to as “Jules” and feels herself almost instantly grow into this other person, a sort of living dissociation: “As Julie, she’d always felt all wrong… [Jules was] a far better name for an awkward-looking fifteen-year-old girl who’d become desperate for people to pay attention to her.” Her friends – a radiant brother and sister, Ash and Goodman; awkward, lovelorn Ethan; beautiful, confused Jonah; and Cathy, a talented dancer whose “mailsacks” of breasts are already threatening her young career – will stick around her in one form or another for nearly forty years, through successes big and small, marriages, breakups, all of life. At the Spirit-in-the-Woods camp, they ironically name themselves “The Interestings”. “The level of wit here was low,” Jules is aware, as the banter conmtinues and the name starts to take, “but the apparatus of wit had been activated, readying itself for later on.”
There’s sheer pleasure to be had in reading The Interestings. It is – I mean this in a good way – an easy read; I was thoroughly drawn in by these people’s life stories, from precocious teens to variously disappointed adults, told in great long third-person chapters that focus in on dynamic set-pieces then pull out to show these lives’ broadest patterns. Wolitzer has a light touch, and is particularly good on thwarted love, the negotiations (with ourselves and others) around relationships, and what happens when a minuscule initial compromise creates friction and disaster years, decades on.
There’s an early moment of shock which essentially dispenses with two of the characters for much of the rest of the book, though the more enduring changes are the subtler, more drawn-out ones
Both Ethan – who is in love with Jules from the outset – and Jules – who wishes she was in love with devoted Ethan, but cannot bring herself to be – have the experience of “settling”, somewhat, with intriguing consequences: Ethan shacks up with Ash, the preternatural beauty, with whom he is not really in love, and their respective careers go from strength to strength; Jules, settling down with an “outsider”, an ultrasound technician called Dennis, often thinks covetously of the life she might have had if only she could have borne to be with Ethan. After the equalising experience of their time at Spirit-in-the-Woods, a sort of Neverland, great disparities in their situations have appeared. Jules, who tries for a while to be a comic actress, eventually becomes a therapist; but Ethan, who has all along drawn funny little cartoons and storyboards for animations in his notebooks, becomes the multimillionaire creator of Figland, a smash-hit TV series. This, too, causes tension. There’s an early moment of shock which essentially dispenses with two of the characters for much of the rest of the book, though the more enduring changes are the subtler, more drawn-out ones.
As a saga, effectively, the book is necessarily long, and it sags a little by the time its protagonists are having children (just as other people’s children are really only fascinating to their parents, so too are the fictional offspring of fictional people). As is often the way when novels include fictive films or books or TV shows, Ethan’s massive success with his cartoon series Figland doesn’t entirely ring true, owing to our having to take Wolitzer’s word for it that it’s a great show; I found myself half-wishing I could tune into it and judge for myself (which is something of a mark of her success in itself). Inevitably, in the sweep of the decades-long plot, the dropping-in of historical time markers like Reagan’s (lack of) response to the AIDS crisis, or the War on Terror, can seem trite.
And we end in that familiar place: the principle characters are all inevitably reunited in the place where they first met; they recognise the changes in themselves that the passing of four decades has wrought; theyand duly have their various crises, breakdowns, reconciliations. (You will likely even be able to make a good guess at the very final word of the novel.) The breakdowns, as long-held secrets are accidentally revealed, frustrations boil to the surface, and even a long-lost character reappears, are impressively handled, and feel true: Dennis and Jules’s frustration with one another, for reasons both overt and scarcely acknowledged, is splendidly vituperative. Wolitzer realises her characters so fully that, immersed in their stories, you don’t care too much that the beats her plot hits along the way are by now very well-worn. C