5/2/2013 - The Interestings might be the second-worst book title ever, after Fancy Coffins to Make Yourself. It’s hard to say; it conveys nothing; it promises zero intrigue. But don’t judge a book by its title, for The Interestings might be the best novel published this spring.
Meg Wolitzer’s sweeping story of six teenagers entwined for life after meeting at a summer camp in Massachusetts is startlingly wonderful, full of memorable imagery and complex, endearing characters. The writing is consistently excellent, never maudlin or predictable. The only cliché occurs when Wolitzer makes fun of clichés (“…if someone said ‘diametrically’, could ‘opposed’ be far behind?”).
The unfortunate title is the name that the teenagers give themselves one evening while congregating in Boys Teepee #3 at a camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods in the summer of 1974. They include Julie Jacobson, a grateful outsider soon to be christened “Jules” by her hip new friends; Ethan Figman, a boy whose talent at animation is matched only by his homeliness; privileged, beautiful siblings Ash and Goodman Wolf; dancer Cathy Kiplinger; and the brooding Jonah Bay, son of a famous folksinger.
Like all teenagers, the six believe that they possess talent, intellect and ambition unknown outside their circle. They gather “because the world was unbearable, and they themselves were not.” In a room damp with vodka and scented with pot, they name their group “The Interestings,” and while their teenage lives go on for a while, Wolitzer summarizes their coming plight on Page 4:
“Fairly soon after that, the snideness would soften, the irony would be mixed in with seriousness, and the years would shorten and fly. Then it wouldn’t be long before they all found themselves shocked and sad to be fully grown into thicker, finalized adult selves, with almost no chance for reinvention.”
That, in itself, is a lovely synopsis, but is it true, is there no chance for reinvention? More importantly, does it matter? Hundreds of page fly by before the reader posits a conclusion, but before the teens leave camp with their parents, miserably returning to their pre-Interestings lives, we’re part of the group, too, initiated and ready to follow the Interestings anywhere. They take us through marriage, parenting, success, failure, abuse, cancer, AIDS, abandonment … pick a place, one of The Interestings winds up there.
But the novel isn’t so much about people as about the loves, ambitions, jealousies and loyalties that drive them, and drive them apart. When we later join Jules and Ethan in their thick adult lives, nothing’s what we expected, just like all adult lives, which is why the mid-life crisis is a modern cliché. Jules is not in crisis, not exactly, but her life was not what she envisioned back in Boys Teepee #3. Others in the group are significantly more successful … at least that’s how it appears outwardly … and Jules and her husband must cope with their own financial and professional realities while remaining close with those who have achieved substantially more — and less.
There’s a fun scene in which Jules and her husband read the Christmas letter from Ethan and his wife (sorry, no spoilers here), with the help of a bottle of wine, and anyone who’s ever gotten an eye twitch over the yearly holiday bragfests will enjoy and relate to their reading ritual.
An accomplished novelist who studied creative writing at both Smith and Brown, Wolitzer is married to writer Richard Panek and lives in New York. Her previous eight books include The Ten-Year Nap, The Wife, and The Uncoupling. But her writing is not the workmanlike competence that comes from practicing a craft for a few decades. Hers is an extraordinary talent that bubbles from some secret place and would have been evident even without the years of practice and schooling.
The Interestings is not a beach read but a novel with depth, meant to be pondered and savored. It helps if you’re an East Coast artsy type who went to camp as a teenager, as Wolitzer apparently did. (The dedication is to her parents, “who sent me there,” and to a woman “whom I met there.”) But The Interestings, like all great novels, speaks to people in all strata of life, especially those long dismissed from that superior class of human being, the teen. A+