[1 May 2013]
Summer 1974. Nixon’s resignation is imminent. At Spirit-In-The-Woods, an arts camp for gifted children, six teenagers are huddling in a teepee, swigging vodka, passing a joint, and talking earnestly, as only teenagers can, of art and life and All The President’s Men. Meet the characters of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.
Ethan Figman, Ash Wolf , Goodman Wolf, Cathy Kiplinger, Jonah Bay and Julie Jacobson have varying levels of artistic ability: Ethan is an illustrator and animator, Ash, an actress, Goodman, her brother, an architect. Cathy is a dancer. The highly gifted Jonah is the son of famed folksinger Susannah Bay.
Julie Jacobson arrives at camp without a specific talent. Instead, she has a tragedy: her father’s recent death from cancer. A sympathetic teacher wangled her a camp scholarship. Redheaded, gawky, blush prone, Julie is stunned when Ash invites her to join the camp’s elite clique. Ash is from New York City, a moneyed family, waifish and beautiful. She is also gentle, goodhearted, and sees in Julie a heretofore unrecognized talent: Julie is funny. Funny enough to be rechristened Jules, a comic actress in the camp’s many plays.
That evening in the teepee, the group, certain of their promising futures, their inherent greatness, dubs themselves “The Interestings”. Their friendships will, with some exception, last a lifetime.
The Interestings revisits certain Wolitzer themes: the wish for talent versus the possession of it, competition amongst friends, parenting developmentally disabled children, the challenges faced by gay people, and mortal illness. More broadly, The Interestings fits into a category one might call “New York Friendship Books”, novels following a group of young people as they succeed or fail in New York City. Mary McCarthy’s seminal The Group comes to mind, along with Joanna Smith Rakoff’s A Fortunate Age and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children.
Wolitzer has a fondness for narration through an awkward character’s eyes. In The Ten Year Nap’s , Amy is pretty but increasingly insecure as she loses touch with the job market, The Position’s Claudia is short, busty, physically disastrous, shy. Now we have Jules, whose friendships with The Interestings opens a doorway into a new, different life. Long Island is cramped, provincial, suburban. Real Life is in New York City, where the rest of The Interestings reside. After summer camp, real life returns in New York City, where The Interestings meet regularly.
Wolitzer is attracted to talent in all its mercurial incarnations. In The Ten Year Nap, Karen Yip is a gifted mathematician, happily married to a wealthy banker. The couple live in a model townhouse with their twins. Karen is regularly offered jobs with enviable salaries, yet is perfectly content to stay home, pleasantly adrift in a sea of numbers. Her friend Roberta Sokolov, a talented painter, struggles for recognition. When she meets her husband, Nathaniel, she joins him puppeteering, only to surrender both pursuits when the couple have children. Years later, when the children are older and finances are freer, Roberta sets up a studio—finally, a room of one’s own once more—only to find her artistic ability has evaporated.
Ethan Figman’s talent is enormous. Like The Position’s Claudia, Figman is a physical unfortunate, heavyset, with halitosis and eczema. Yet his charismatic and compassionate demeanor, coupled with genuine humility, make him adored at camp and later in life, when his abilities are rewarded with fame and income. The only child of miserable parents, Figman creates an imaginary world called Figland, a televised animated otherworld akin to The Simpsons. Figman’s millions mean little to him; work is all. When he realizes most Figland-related merchandise is manufactured offshore by children, he launches a worldwide campaign against child labor, ably aided by wife Ash.
Ash and Goodman Wolf are the sibling suns The Interestings revolve around. With their parents, Gil and Betsy, they inhabit a spacious apartment in a building dubbed The Labyrinth. The Wolfs are a bit like The Interestings themselves: attractive, accomplished, successful. Gil is a hedge fund manager, Betsy a fundraiser and fine cook. The family is exceptionally close, happily accommodating a revolving houseful of guests, including Jules, who consumes Betsy’s exotic meals and the family’s cultured conversation.
With her delicate looks and sensitive demeanor, Ash is expected to become an actress, but her interest shifts to directing plays, specifically those written by and about women. An overachiever, Ash takes it upon herself to smooth matters between Goodman and Gil.
The ironically named Goodman is handsome, sarcastic, and adrift. Only his father’s wealthy pull has kept him in a decent “alternative” school. His lackadaisical approach to academics and life is the sole cause of strife in the Wolf household. In time, Goodman will commit an irrevocable act whose repercussions echo through the novel.
Cathy Kiplinger will leave The Interestings. Although highly talented, her voluptuous build ruins her chance at a dancing career. In the novel’s only blip, Cathy has breast reduction surgery in middle age, leading the reader the wonder why she didn’t have it as a young woman, enabling her to pursue a dance professionally.
Jonah Bay is Wolitzer’s gay character: she has one in every novel. The prescient Hidden Pictures, written in 1986, chronicles a mother who leaves her unhappy marriage to become involved with a woman, only to engage in a custody battle with her ex-husband. Jonah is so highly strung he can barely deal with gentle Robert Takahashi, his long-term, HIV-positive lover. After a difficult childhood, he abandons music in favor of engineering. But unlike Karen Yip, he is discontented, repressed and unhappy.
Jules attempts an acting career in New York, rapidly realizing she isn’t nearly good enough. She parleys her good humor and listening skills into a career as a therapist. She meets and marries Dennis Boyd, the antithesis of The Interestings. Dennis hasn’t an artistic bone in his body; he prefers touch football with friends. Like Betsy Wolf, he enjoys cooking exotic dinners. An ultrasound technologist by trade, Dennis struggles with depression. The couple have a daughter and a relatively happy marriage, marred by Jules’ intense jealousy of Ash and Ethan.
As The Interestings leave their 20s and enter their 30s, Ash and Ethan’s respective careers soar. Their wealth is soon stratospheric. They remain gracious, generous, and humble. Ash gives birth to a daughter, Larkin, a lovely, gifted child resembling her parents. Mo, their son, is another story: with Jules along, Ash takes him for a two-day workup at the Yale Child Study Center, confirming what everyone suspects about this three-year-old: he is autistic. He will require a lifetime of specialized schooling and constant attendant care.
Even Mo’s diagnosis fails to lessen Jules’ wild envy of her friends. As the years pass, people age, fall ill, leave one another, die too young. Long-held secrets fester. Jules’ final effort at a truly creative life is a failure that nearly derails her marriage.
Wolitzer’s novels are growing longer and richer, each a complex investigation into what makes life meaningful in our unhinged society. Her characters are rounded and realistic, their lives as unbalanced as any living mortal’s. Ash and Ethan may be rich beyond measure, Figland a beloved show, but Ethan cannot bring himself to love his son. Ash carries a terrible secret. Jonah must come to terms with his childhood and the emotional barriers he hides behind. Goodman’s life, at best, is a cautionary tale, while Cathy’s genuine efforts at honesty and goodness backfire. Jules never entirely makes peace with her life, which in many ways is a fine one. Yet it’s not quite the life she’d hoped for.
Although Wolitzer’s wonderful writing is largely cheerful, The Interestings will resonate unhappily with any middle-aged reader whose ambitions for a life less ordinary didn’t quite pan out. Many readers will recognize themselves, the long-ago dancers or would-be great novelists, the next Angus Young, now unable even to tune a guitar, working an eight-to-fiver in an climate-controlled building whose windows are sealed shut. Like The Interestings, these middle-aged people must come to terms with themselves and their lives, recognizing the good while coping with the bad. The balance is ever-shifting, acceptance often difficult.
The Interestings may not make the middle-aged reader feel better about her own lost hopes, but she’ll enjoy the ride.