Friday, April 18, 2014

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Julie Jacobsen is an awkward suburban teenager, attending an arts summer camp on scholarship, when she meets and embraced by a group of five Manhattanites who seem to her the pinnacle of sophistication. The group calls themselves "The Interestings" and includes Cathy (a dancer), Jonah (a talented musician who is the son of a famous folksinger), Ethan (a gifted animator), and brother and sister Goodman and Ash Wolf. The group even gives Julie a new nickname--Jules--that she embraces as more fitting than her pedestrian given name. Ethan tries to start a romantic relationship with Jules; while she likes him, she feels no romantic interest in him.

Once summer camp is over, Jules maintains her friendship with the group, traveling into the city most weekends to hang out with "The Interestings" and assiduously keeping them from visiting her modest suburban home. Events that I won't reveal force Cathy and Goodman from the group, but the other four Interestings remain friends into middle age. Ash and Ethan marry and Ethan becomes fabulously successful with his animated television series for adults; Ash becomes a somewhat successful feminist producer/director, though it seems likely that the opportunities that come her way are due to Ethan's prominence. Jonah, who has been damaged by abuse suffered at the hands of a musician friend of his mother's, gives up music, briefly joins the Moonies, and then becomes a designer of assistive devices for disabled people (while Jonah's story is less central than those of Jules, Ash, and Ethan, he may be the most sympathetic and compelling character in the book).

Jules, who hoped to become a comic actress, eventually realizes her talent is limited; she marries a lovely (but not "special") man named Dennis, has a daughter, and becomes a therapist. Despite her achievements, she is envious not only of Ash and Ethan's lifestyle and wealth but their ability to sustain the artistic dreams of their youth. She is blind to problems or frustrations in their lives (their son Mo is on the autism spectrum and Ethan questions his ability to love Mo--a pretty serious challenge), as well as to Ethan's enduring love for her. Her envy is corrosive, preventing her from fully inhabiting or appreciating her own life.

I probably would not have read The Interestings if Novel Conversations hadn't chosen it. It relies on a plot device (following what happens to a group of childhood friends as they enter adulthood) I generally find ineffective, and books on privileged Northeasterners aren't my favorites. However, I very much liked the book and its exploration of how we judge our own and others' success.

In 2012, Meg Wolitzer published an essay in The New York Times, questioning why books by women that deal with family issues do not receive as much acclaim as similarly themed books by men (e.g., the highly regarded The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen). It's an interesting piece ( and, having read all three books, I would regard The Interestings as the equal of the Eugenides and Franzen titles. Definitely a topic worth considering.

Favorite passages
You didn't always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation. You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.

. . . he's infuriated that his e-reader allows him to only know the percentage of a book he's read, nto the number of pages. This, he thinks, is 92 percent stupid.

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