Tuesday, January 07, 2014
The Book I Read: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
On a summer night in 1974 a shy girl named Julie Jacobson sits in a teepee at a summer arts camp with a group of new friends who will be part of her life for the next forty years. Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings spins off from that first meeting into being a big, social novel about class, money, friendship, and loss. The key friendships in Julie's life (after her new friends dub her "Jules") are with Ash Wolf and Ethan Figman, two camp friends that she will stay close with even as Ash and Ethan enter a new social sphere thanks to Ethan's creation of a popular animated television series. Wolitzer does a structural thing here which almost backfires but which ends up working. After we're introduced to Jules, Ash, and the others in the 70's Wolitzer gives a brief introduction the camp's benevolent owners and then jumps to that late 2000's and a scene that reveals the jealousy that flows under the friendship between Jules and Ash. The resentment that Jules (who abandons dreams of acting and becomes a therapist) feels towards Ash and Ethan is real, unattractive, and almost fatal to both the friendship and her marriage to a depressive but finally stalwart man. As we jump back and follow the characters from the '70s into the present the memory of this early chapter lingers over the novel and goes to its central question. The title The Interestings refers to a name Jules and her friends give themselves in jest during that first summer, but of course Wolitzer has in mind the question of just what the word interesting really means.
Are the wealthy Ash and Ethan really the most interesting people in the novel? On the surface perhaps, as their money seems to have no limits and their lives are full of work, philanthropy, and parenting. When Ash and Ethan (who early on is the most physically unattractive of the group) come together as teens their friends are surprised, and by the end of The Interestings we know just how many holes there were in the marriage. Jules and her husband Dennis struggle to get by but they make it make it work, as does their friend Jonah Bay. The son of a famous folk singer, Jonah begins his life as a gay man during the AIDS-ravaged 80's and eventually finds himself overcoming a childhood trauma to reclaim some level of artistic expression. Wolitzer gives us lots of details about the lives of Ash, Ethan, and Ash's brother Goodman, whose disappearance from the group causes a reshuffling of relationships, but we never know them the way we know Jules and Jonah. Ash and Ethan even seem a little horrible at times, always pushing their goodness on people. Finally The Interestings suggests that money pushes people apart and that the bonds forged at summer camp are never as strong as we think. The most interesting thing is always what's next. It's a message that Wolitzer delivers with great specificity and a surprising amount of emotion. I haven't read all the competition but The Interestings deserves its place in the conversation about 2013's best books.