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Overview From New York Times–bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a new novel that has been called "genius" (The Chicago Tribune), “wonderful” (Vanity Fair), "ambitious" (San Francisco Chronicle), and a “page-turner” (Cosmopolitan), which The New York Times Book Review says is "among the ranks of books like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot."
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 nowmarried 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.
Reviews Meg Wolitzer’s captivating new novel, set in the bustle and exuberance of New York, is a panoramic and epic drama, but a sleeper kind of epic. It gripped me by degrees, opening rather conventionally and then gradually seducing me with a fertile character development and realistic, original story. She penetrates the messiness of human lives with a spotless narrative that feels both familiar and singular. If you are drawn to human drama, you’ll soon be thoroughly hooked. This is surely the crown of Wolitzer’s writing career.
Six teenagers meet at a co-ed arts camp in the Berkshires in 1974 and remain in touch through the years (up to the present). A few become close intimates, and all of them maintain a lifelong bond. They each have a creative talent that they endeavor to nurture--dance, animation, architecture, theater, music. Art/creativity is the altar at which most of them strive and sacrifice to achieve artistic grace and ingenuity. But some
are more successful than others in translating a talent into a career, and in identifying the difference between desire and aptitude.
Although THE INETRESTINGS is an ensemble piece, aspiring stage actress, Jules Jacobson, stands out as the moral touchstone of the novel. We wholly inhabit her head and heart. Although her life is the most recognizably routine, she resonates acutely in the narrative. Occasionally, she covets her friends’ successes, and she struggles at times to be charitable in her thoughts, but in spite of herself, Jules possesses an incorruptible archness and mettle. Artistically, she aims for a Lucille Ball comic timing, but her delivery promptly falls flat. Awkward and spontaneous, she has a tough and vulnerable elasticity that fuels the story. She’s injured, imperfect, but even at her most astray, there’s something of the shepherdess in her.
Waifish Ash Wolf, the Yale-bound dramatic actress, is sister to Goodman, the robustly masculine but lugubrious, lazy, wannabe architect. They come from privileged roots, and their NY apartment and cultured parents become a meeting place for the six friends during off-camp season.
Ethan Figman, homely and flat-nosed, is nevertheless the ambassador of the group, and the most obviously talented. His Fig Land animation/characters demonstrate the work of a genius.
Jonah Bay is the son of a famous, Judi Collins-like folksinger. He has delicately attractive features, and is quiet and thoughtful, but troubled.
Cathy Kiplinger--full-breasted and extroverted, and fearlessly sexy, came to the camp on scholarship, and dreams of a career in dance.
A seventh main character emerges, an outsider who becomes an insider, and even eclipses some of the primary group of six, but I don’t want to give anything away by even naming him or her. However, it is from this person that a new perspective of the group and its bond are viewed. The
book’s power is both its sweeping scope and the magnification of everyday life. It is best to read this novel without any preparation or peek inside.
Distinctly drawn characters propel the action. You will forget that there is an author between you and the story, because rather than being “notified,” the reader sharply observes the coalescing of the characters' individual natures and the connection between the friends. There’s no skipping to contrived plot points, and the story never intrudes with an authorial voice. Both stout and potent, the narrative doesn’t rely on gimmicks or typical arcs and milestones. You engage through an accretion of details and everyday events, rather than through trumped-up epiphanies. However, one seismic event causes tremors and fissures that divide some characters and bring others together. We engage more and more as time passes and the characters grow.
Ambition, desire, success, jealousy, and envy shape the mortal coils of friendship, love, and loyalty, and figure importantly in the story, as do coming to terms with strengths and limitations. Moreover, mental health issues are addressed with keen awareness and insight. Much of the novel is a fluent progression of days and moments, strung brilliantly together. As observers, we get a ground view, and occasionally a bird’s eye view of events, but we inhabit the narrative as if we are inside the story. The novel goes back and forth in time with a fluid and seamless momentum that kept me turning the pages well into the wee hours of the night. Consummately satisfying, interesting, and more. A Masterpiece
This book is amazing in many ways. I must admit that I love novels of east coast culture, but good ones have been hard to come by recently. Since such novels were the default genre of the much of the 20th century they begin to suffer from the difficulty of mining new material in an old tradition. Meg Wollitzer, along with a few others such as Jeffrey Eugenides, succeed in revelatory ways. I have read couple of other books by Wollitzer- “The Wife” and the young adult novel “The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman”, both terrific in different ways. “The Interestings” takes her from being a really good novelist to being in a class by herself, an
extraordinary master. This is a bit ironic since one of the themes of the book is artistic ambition in relationship to life experience and fulfillment.
The book traces the paths of Ethan, Jules, Ash, Cathy, and Jonah and a few others over several decades, from adolescence to late middle age. They meet at a summer camp for ambitiously artistic kids and immediately dub themselves “The Interestings”. How they do or don’t remain “interesting” to themselves and others, and what does “interesting” mean anyway are the crucial issues dealt with here. Wollitzer traces how their personal idiosyncrasies, social and economic background, luck, sexual politics, temperament and more create nuanced shades of accomplishment and failure in both life and art. Nobody comes away happy but some fare better than others. Jules in particular, in some ways the least “interesting” of “The Interestings”, is in other ways the most interesting in the depth of Wollitzer’s investigation of the her “normality”.
What is unique here is Wollitzer’s brilliance at nuanced observation, the dramatic and highly believable twists of fate and the richness of her off hand perceptions. It is the incidentals than make the book so profound. As the old saw goes, “God is in the details”. I found myself almost gasping in astonishment several times in some paragraphs. Her riffs on well worn themes seem effortless and dazzling in their resonance.
Although I had a few quibbles with the rapid passage of the middle decades of the book, these were minor. Every reader has at least one: that author you love who no seems to have read, often despite a huge output, appearances on NPR, and lots of great reviews. For me, it is Meg Wolitzer. Better than most, Meg Wolitzer creates rich relatable characters, each of whom carries that ephemeral sense of "realness" that brings them to life. She combines that gift with a wickedly sharp sense of humor and fine flare for plotting. If you've read her previous novels, you also know that she relies on her mastery of certain techniques: a gift for perspective that allows her to deftly shift the telling of a story between characters and the difficult trick of seamlessly jumping her stories forward in time. Wolitzer demonstrated both these skills nowhere as well as in her excellent novel, "The Position," where she revealed a dysfunctional family's story from the perspective of all its
members with Rashomon-like aplomb. In "The Interestings" she pushes these skills perhaps further than ever before. When it works, the novel flies high enough that one can forgive the occasional short comings.
"The Interestings" takes its title from the name adopted by a group of teens who come together as at a hippy-art sleep away camp, forging a friendship that lasts decades. While each character comes in for close examination, the narrative thread concentrates on Julie Jacobson, a suburban girl dazzled by the urbanity and perceived talent of the rest. Julie - renamed "Jules" by her new friends -- continues to ask herself if she measures up to the talent of her peers. Indeed, again and again Wolitzer returns to the meaning and measure of talent asking penetrating questions that push this into the lofty realms of a novel of ideas. What does it mean to be "special?" Is being ordinary so terrible? No one in the novel represents this view better than the proudly ordinary - yet still interesting - man who Jules eventual marries. He wonders aloud about the fact that everyone wants to be special but most aren't and whether that means the majority should kill themselves on that realization.
The novel's web of interconnected friendships shifts over time: Goodman the Adonis from a wealthy family and his beautiful admired sister, Ash. Ethan Figgman is a genius cartoonist, the glue that holds the group together, some readers may find him a bit too close to sainthood. Jonah who rounds out the group is the son of a famous folksinger and haunted by a terrible secret. Wolitzer's gifts are on full display when it comes to breathing life into these characters. Even Ethan who carries the burden of a heavy halo delivers enough charm to keep him lively. Some characters perhaps don't get the attention they deserve. Jonah especially offers tremendous and unrealized potential that left me wanting more.
Instead of telling the story from a perspective that shifts on some consistent basis, such as between chapters, Wolitzer makes a bold choice to depart from her comfort zone and uses a voice that is full-throatedly omniscient. The novel moves between characters and back and forth in time often without pausing for punctuation. Where the broader culture was a backdrop in most of Wolitzer's earlier works, here she uses that omniscient voice to deliver thoughtful criticism, often in a single sentence considering events separated by decades. She considers the AIDS crisis.
The ebb and flow of urban violence. Shifting attitudes about money. Cuisine. When these topics run close to the characters and the storyline, the impact can be tremendous. At other times they can feel forced. Omniscient narration can be a tough horse to ride, and at times one feels that Wolitzer isn't quite in full control of the reigns. The narration makes unneeded jumps, such as into the closet one character ducks into for a drink. The other characters all know what he's doing in the closet and so does the reader, so why interrupt the narration to follow him into that closet for a throwaway sentence which gives no new information and moves the plot not a hair?
These, however, remain quibbles in the context of a narrative often exciting to the point of being spell-binding. Wolitzer continues to grow as a novelist, a triumph for a talent who could easily rest on her laurels and remain in her comfort zone. Her topic puts her in a fine tradition of American fiction considering identity that stretches back at least to Twain, through Fitzgerald, to modern masters like Roth and Doctorow and here she makes a respectable addition to that long tradition. I can only hope that, with "The Interestings," Meg Wolitzer will receive the wide, wide audience that she so well deserves.
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