52 Books by 52 Women: The Interestings

For a year I’m reading 52 books by women authors whose work I’ve never read before. Click here for previous installments.

For some reason, this book took me a really long time to read. I mean, it’s a long book—468 pages—but it’s not like I haven’t read longer. But it’s not a fast 468 pages. Because I’ve been hoping to read a book a week to get my 52 Books by 52 Women challenge done in a space of a year, I found myself putting this one aside several times to read shorter books, and even then I fell a little behind. (When I referred to reading a book that was way too long to finish in a week a few books ago, this is the one I meant.)

Meg Wolitzer. Photo by Nina Subin.

Meg Wolitzer. Photo by Nina Subin.

Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Interestings came out just last year, and it’s one I became curious about primarily through reviews in the magazines I was reading instead of reading books. It follows a group of friends from summer camp from their teen years into middle age, from 1972 into the 21st century. Not sequentially, however; it jumps straight from the former to the latter and then backtracks to fill in the intervening years.

It’s told primarily from the point of view of Jules Jacobson, an awkward girl from Long Island who feels lucky to become accepted to the group she sees as the cool kids of this summer camp for the arts—wealthier and seemingly more cosmopolitan kids from New York City. “We’ve formed this group, and it’s going to be a lifelong thing,” says Jonah, the son of a famous folksinger, and it’s supposed to be an alibi to a camp counselor for hanging around and getting high, but it’s also true. Because this group of friends hung out together every summer at Spirit-in-the-Woods, they’d jokingly decided that they should call themselves something—the Interestings, decided upon with a healthy dollop of self-mockery.

But they do consider themselves interesting, really: Ash Wolf, the elfin actress; her brother Goodman, the arrogant hunk and budding delinquent; Jonah Bay, the sensitive musician; Cathy Kiplinger, the sexy but needy dancer; Ethan Figman, the quirky animated cartoonist; and Jules, who was called Julie until she came to camp, an awkward funny girl. Jules and Ethan bond over being the only funny-looking people in their ludicrously attractive circle of friends; he tries to turn that connection into a romance, but she’s just not into him.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that somehow Ash and Ethan become an unlikely couple by camp’s end—the awkward, ugly guy and the ethereal beauty—because that’s revealed very early on. Ethan becomes rich and famous with a long-running and hugely popular cartoon, something along the lines of The Simpsons, while Ash pursues a career as a pointedly feminist theater director. Goodman and Jonah live harder, sadder and very separate lives, appearing only every once in a while, and Cathy breaks with the group decisively early on after a terrible incident. I’m being vague here because if anything could really be said to be a spoiler, it’s these particular plot lines. Jules, meanwhile, settles into a nonartistic life as a therapist, married to a “regular guy,” Dennis, an ultrasound tech who has to stay medicated for depression.

Not quite halfway through, when Jules is still trying to make it as an actress (and we already know she won’t stick with it because we’ve seen her future),  she talks about the Herman Wouk novel Marjorie Morningstar, about an aspiring actress who finally settles into live as a suburban housewife: “She used to be really dynamic and exciting and filled with promise, but she’s become this ordinary, sort of boring person, and her friend can’t believe this is the same person he used to know. I always thought it was the saddest and most devastating ending. How you could have these enormous dreams that never get met. How without knowing it you could just make yourself smaller over time. I don’t want that to happen to me.”

In a way, that’s what Jules’s story is all about, coming to terms with living a relatively regular life, especially relative to her famous and wealthy best friends, whom she can’t help but be jealous of. There’s one particularly poignant section when Jules reflects that there’s no way she would have become friends with Ash and Ethan today. They would have had nothing in common, and the only reason they’re such close friends as adults is because they met each other so young. That’s why Jules and her husband have absolutely nothing to talk about with Ash and Ethan’s other friends. It’s in the context of Jules feeling sorry for herself when she finally realizes just how rich Ethan really is now, but it’s also a very true observation about the nature of friendships, and how much easier it is to form them earlier in life than later.

The time-jumping is disorienting at first, but you get used to it. There’s also a fair amount of jumping from one point-of-view character to another (always in third person), though we always seem to come back to Jules. There are a few twists that feel a little too convenient, such as the fact that we find out the only two gay characters in the book are dating before we’d even heard that they’d met. Every time someone mused about their future, I wondered if it was some kind of foreshadowing, and occasionally it is. Certainly Dennis’s MAO inhibitor and many associated dietary restrictions feel like a time bomb waiting to go off.

Although I found it to be often a slow read, it was never out of lack of interest, but it’s also not that the writing especially dense. It’s just a leisurely paced novel that doesn’t do to speed though. (Also, the type is kind of small.) Whether or not the characters are as interesting as they thought they were when they were teenagers—the days some of them wish they could recapture somehow—once you’re well into the novel they start to feel like old acquaintances, and you’re invested in finding out how things turn out for them.

Books read in the challenge so far:

Book 1: Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Book 2: Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Book 3: Elissa Wald, The Secret Lives of Married Women

Book 4: Kurahashi Yumiko, The Woman with the Flying Head

Book 5: NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

Book 6: Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel

Book 7: Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings


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