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The Interestings: A Novel
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419 of 440 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I was persuaded by a group of real friends, who are also avid readers, that I should give the latest Meg Wolitzer novel, "The Interestings", a go even though I'd been disappointed by her last novel. I'm glad I listened to them! "The Interestings" is indeed interesting - AND well written, thoughtful and both witty and touching.

I can make the case that "The Interestings" can be considered a historical novel of the past 4 decades; I call that "recent" history because I can remember it! Reading about the 1980s for example, brought back memories of:

- the first cases of AIDS and how bewildering that was
- the first cordless phones
- mugger-full and dirty NYC
- the first soapy taste of the now ubiquitous herb cilantro
- the Moonies
- "Women's Lib" being the term to describe feminism

This novel is full of such memories because it's about six friends who meet in a summer camp for artistic kids in the 70s and it follows their lives into the present, touching on each decade as they make their way to adulthood. The novel moves quickly and is never boring or slow as many things happen to each of these people as they face their lives. It felt voyeuristic - in a good way - to follow their ups and downs. I could relate because I also "grew up" at the same time. There is a bit of jumping around in time and significant foreshadowing which I found to be an effective story-telling device here.

There are many "themes" in the novel; friendship, the nature of art, the meaning of "talent", loss of innocence, sexual attraction, and the relationship between art and money, to name a few. But I think the theme that interested ME the most, was the theme of envy and it's ugly and corrosive nature. When we envy our friends' successes or their material wealth, or their looks or their talents, what does that do to us and how we negotiate in the world? How does that affect our friendships and does envy actually negate true friendship? Can you envy someone you truly love?

I love novels that entertain me, inform me, and that challenge me to think about things from different points of view - as through the lens of well-crafted characters. This novel gave me all of that.
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175 of 195 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 19, 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Let me get this out of the way right now: this is a tremendous book. I have a couple of criticisms, which I will get to, but hot damn. Meg Wolitzer has written an astonishingly clever, detailed novel, and the utmost respect must be given to that. Remember this book, because it will definitely be popping up again when people begin compiling best-of lists for 2013.

But let's talk about the novel, shall we? In 1974, six teenagers meet at a summer camp for the arts and jokingly refer to themselves as The Interestings--exactly the kind of ironic, half-kidding-half-hopeful joke that captivates them at that moment in time. The six run the gamut of the art world: a dancer, a musician, an animator; an actress who wants to further the cause of feminism in theater, a wannabe architect, and a comedic actress. The latter character, Jules, forms the center of our story. Significantly, she's also the outlier. Jules isn't an artist when she ends up at Camp Spirit-in-the-Woods. It's unclear how she found her way to a camp for artists when there were so many different options out there (one of those woefully nitpicky details that nevertheless irked me); she simply wanted an escape from her family and the grief they all feel after the abrupt death of her father from cancer. What's important is that she's an outsider in this world when we first meet her, and she very much discovers herself once she has been thrust into The Interestings. She doesn't feel like she belongs but she desperately wants to. She discovers an ability to make people laugh and parlays it into a comical role in a camp play--a moment that overwhelms her with the sense that she has arrived, that she has found her life's calling.

Through the course of the novel we follow The Interestings through the next forty years or so--some closely, intimately, others at a distance. And it's here that Meg Wolitzer achieves genius status in my mind. It would be tempting to call The Interestings a coming-of-age novel. It would be tempting to say that it's about success, both personal and financial, and which ultimately matters more (a la The Turning Point). It would be tempting to say it's about art: how it is expressed, how it is celebrated, and how the definition changes over time. It would be tempting to say that it's about friendship. It would even be tempting to say that it's about talent--that curious quality which can be overlooked, rejected, celebrated, and evasive. But to say any of those things would be reductive. The Interestings encapsulates all of them, but what it really seems to be about to me is life itself. Nowhere have I experienced a more profound rendering of characters moving, growing, and evolving through time. Shockingly, everything feels organic. Wolitzer has such effortless control over her narrative that nothing felt contrived. Characters age, realize how much time has gone by and how old they are in a way that resonates. Disasters strike, but they feel like the curveballs that life throws at you as time goes by (even more astonishing, the way the characters respond to these occurrences feels natural to who they are). I've read so many books that suffer from what feel like random acts of plotting; so many novels where the twists, turns, and choices feel like things that need to happen in order for the plot to move forward rather than things that do happen. By the end of the novel each character forms a palimpsest, making it possible to see all the layers of the person they have been through their lifetime.

It comes as no surprise that Jeffrey Eugenides provides the rapturous blurb on the cover of the beautiful jacket, because I couldn't help but think that this is the novel Eugenides was trying to write when he wrote The Marriage Plot. Replace his tedious musings on literary theory with musings on art and you're pretty much there. One of the characters even struggles with mental illness.

The Interestings is a novel of astonishing intelligence and wit, and I do hope that you enjoy it as much as I did. I can't wait to explore Wolitzer's work further.

Grade: A
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252 of 291 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Probably more than any book I've read in the past couple of years, The Interestings made me think about what I like in a novel. There is, in terms of mechanics, a lot to admire here. The sentences flow well, the writer has a command of the subject matter, and has sympathy for the most of the main characters she creates. Meg Wolitzer is a pro at what she does.

But then there are the subjects being addressed, the characters, and the tone. Personally, I can't connect to the people described here. I'm not an East Coaster. I'm not super-liberal. I'm not plugged into popular culture, even the stuff that is regarded as high-brow television. If you're a boomer who loves things like The Daily Show, reads the Style section of the NY Times, and reads profiles in the New Yorker of movers and shakers in the business and art world, you'll probably find The Interestings appealing.

Wolitzer has written a sprawling, decades-long tale of six East Coast kids who grew up in the 1970s. Five of the kids come from wealthy homes full of strivers. The sixth is the main character in this novel and is a scholarship kid enamored of the privilege of the others. In a lot of ways, The Interestings is a much better version of another novel I read recently, The Marriage Plot. They are both Jane Austen-like in their approach. Both have third person narrators who are not at all shy about telling exactly what is going on inside the heads of the principal characters. Mental illness plays a significant role in both stories. In The Interestings there is the welcome bonus of some quiet, droll humor.

If you like traditional novels in a modern setting that are focused on relationships between friends, The Interestings will likely be a worthwhile read. If you have an aversion to East Coast culture and gravitate toward novels with big ideas, I'd stay away.
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167 of 200 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 1, 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
1. The character, especially the four focused on, are well-developed, interesting, and human.
2. One of the chief emotions that is dealt with is jealousy- how do you cope when your friends are more successful than you are? I think we've all been there in one way or another and can absolutely relate.
3. Summer camp! Maybe you went as a child, hated it as a teen, or wished your family had the money to send you. Heck, I wish I could go now as an adult! The summer camps is what brought them all together- this commonality levels the playing field and shaped their later lives in so many ways.
4. The novel deals with some heavy issues and does so well- cancer, rape, depression, autism, marital strife, and AIDS, just to name a few.
5. The writing is dynamic- Wolitzer is descriptive without being over-the-top, poignant, and even comical at times.
6. I loved one of the overall messages of the book- life sucks, gets better again, sucks a little more, improves, and so on and so forth. When you're looking at things as one big chunk instead of tiny little pieces things usually end up okay in one way or the other. You have to use what you know, and who you know, to make it through the hard times.
7. The narrative structure of the book is intricately well-crafted. It is constantly jumping around from past to present, from character to character. And yet I never felt confused or frustrated, a sure sign of Wolitzer's writing chops.
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54 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Like the characters in the book, I was born in 1959 and was part of the artsy fartsy group who went off to summer camp. That's where the similarities end. I'd been told that the power of the book was the ability of the author to "really get us," but it's not there. Worse the characters are less than engaging emotionally. Part of the problem is that the novel is written in the third person, which always creates some distance, but a bigger part of the problem is that the author tells us about them rather than shows us who they are. She doesn't have Jules saying or doing witty or funny things, she simply repeatedly tells us that the other characters see Jules as witty and funny. The other characters are equally lacking in flesh or soul. The characters rarely have much in common and seem like tokens: A is our gay character, B is our depressed character, C is our genius character, D is our feminist character.... Parents may be indulgent or distant or clueless or negligent or abusive or broken or some other liability, but they're never normal and never adequate. Kids seem always to be obsessively striving for something, usually in response to some flaw in their parents, and never just enjoying being. The story has no structure other than the fact that it looks in on the lives of the same few characters over the years between their teens and their 50s and it's built on a series of topics on which the author seems to want to make a statement. The novel has been called "literary" because it makes a lame attempt at foreshadowing here and there (is that all it takes these days?). I know it's a pet peeve, but I was annoyed that the author (and her editors) seem not to know the difference between "bring" and "take," and that the narrative is frequently interrupted by irrelevant descriptions of meaningless objects when neither the description nor the object advance or enrich the story. I don't recommend it.
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41 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I've read other works by this author and was very excited when this book finally arrived at the library after I'd had it on hold for months. I was disappointed as I continued my slog through its pages. I can take shallow, narcissistic characters, but the verbosity was unbearable.

I think the scene in which the young gay man has a sexual encounter that starts off with his being put on the phone to a counselor to talk about safe sex is a pretty good example of this downfall: Was it really necessary to have the equivalent of an entire brochure inserted into the text? I mean, really--it was as if the book had suddenly turned into a nonfiction text on the topic. (I pick this out only for the jarring sideways leap into being an encyclopedia, not because of the topic itself...the author could have digressed here by having some expert step in to talk at length about expensive cheeses, or beekeeping, or the history of WWII, and it would've been as much of a literary crevasse.)

I generally don't need books to have an episodic plot, but halfway through this one I was surely wishing it did, as the "character driven' aspect of it meant only that the characters were driving me up a wall.
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81 of 100 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
My bookclub choice this month was Meg Wollitzer's, "The Interestings" and I selected this particular book after reading numerous raving reviews in the New York Times, the Atlantic Wire, Amazon, etc. I have to say, I am at a complete loss, stunned, flabbergasted by these reviews after finishing "The Interestings". I think a more appropriate title might have been "The Shallow Borings". In school, the strength of learning to write lies in understanding the difference between "show" and "tell". As I thought about this, dogging my way through "The Interestings", I realized that "show" is what adds depth and breadth to a situation, a character, plot development. "Show" is what makes great writing just that. It draws a reader into a story, explaining without repetitive explanations, elaborating without labor, settling deeper into the sponge of a tale, never settling for a superficial, diagrammatic lecture. I believe that any writer intent on understanding what "tell" is, could refer to any page in "The Interestings". This type of writing dulls the senses (pardon the cliché) at a minimum, and induces almost rage at the shallow and redundant efforts to depict complexity and interest. What might have been an engrossing eavesdropping of many lives brought together randomly and the various paths they have taken with curious intersections over time, is actually stilted observation (perhaps this was written as a screen play, assuming it would be made into a movie, a la "Friends" until they all turn 52, ancient, and that the director would find a way to breathe emotion and feeling into otherwise flat and dimensionless characters whose life angst and history is loosely contrived). "The Interestings" is a very ordinary story of the lives of interesting(?) (not uniquely special) characters, and I groped for any door or window that would take me to thoughtful revelation or curious moments of my understanding I came to all by myself, without the controlled and demonstrative conducting of the author. I alone seem to expect better from such an "acclaimed" novel.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
**possible spoilers**

I don't usually read these types of "book club" books, but I recently joined such a club and so I have to go with the other member's choices. Myself, I prefer non-fiction about trends and ideas, autobiographies of noteworthy people, historical novels, true crime, and old classics that have been on my Bucket List forever. Nevertheless, I gave this book a very open mind, up until I was about 50 percent of the way through, and then decided I only liked it enough to give it two stars. I mainly finished it so that I could talk about it honestly at the book club meeting.

First, the things I liked about it: as another reviewer said, it's kind of an old-fashioned novel, at least in its structure and scope. In fact, it reminded me of a tonier version of a Jacqueline Suzann novel from the late 60s to early 70s, in that it features a cast of inter-connected characters who weave in and out of the narrative over a long period of time, with one character's point of view predominating, but not taking up the whole story by any means. These types of novels don't seem to get written very often today, and it was nice to revisit that style for a change. Secondly, Wolitzer **does** offer up a few great insights, which I liked enough to highlight (and that's no small praise; I didn't highlight anything from the second book our club read, which I hated.)

Unfortunately, the book seems to suffer a lot from the author's claustrophobic world view, which doesn't seem to encompass anything beyond the incestuous world of the upper-middle-class New York literary, academic and arts scene, combined with the equally incestuous world of Northeastern progressive political activism. The characters all have the same drearily conformist political and social opinions about everything, and their politics are hammered home in a ham-fisted way every few pages. Nearly every major character seems to be Jewish, or half-Jewish, or possibly Jewish, but undeclared. (The one major character who seems resolutely non-Jewish, a dancer called Cathy, is ostracized from the group in the first third of the book, and doesn't reappear until much later. Tellingly, Cathy goes on to become a successful corporate executive, which the author clearly seems to think vindicates her cruel expulsion from the group.) Nearly every other character is either an artist of some sort, or an upper-middle class urban professional, such as a lawyer or therapist. There's no room for a Future Farmer of America, or a West Point graduate, or an oil company middle manager in Wolitzer's closed little circle of "good" people, who might mess up her tidy worldview with conflicting perspectives.

There's nothing wrong with the narrowness of Wolitzer's cast of characters, but if you are going to set your novel up as some sort of anthem for the late-stage boomer generation, it would have helped if your characters were a little bit more representational of that generation's actual ethnic make-up.

The second main thing I disliked about the book was that it didn't strike me as particularly historically accurate, despite the constant invoking of Seventies pop culture ephemera (Average White Band, Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific Shampoo, the Bicentennial). I'm a late-stage boomer myself, born in 1960, but never once did I believe that the teen-agers who dubbed themselves "The Interestings," were actually teen-agers from the Seventies. They talked and acted more like politically correct characters from a 21st Century Young Adult Novel, shoe-horned backwards into history.

For example, the character Figman complains at one point that everything their group talks about is peppered with irony and constant references to books, movies, and popular music. But the massive drenching of the popular media in "irony" and the endless boomer reverence for pop cultural references were not Seventies things; they first appeared in the late 80s/early 90s. In the Seventies, people were not "ironic," they were deadly serious about everything (it wasn't a fun decade.) And no, there wasn't much reverence for pop culture, for the simple reason that not very much of it existed at the time (TV as a mass communication device was only about 20 years old in 1974.) Benzoyl peroxide wasn't a widely available acne medicine; that would have been the old, greasy version of Clearasil (you had to get a doctor's prescription for BP--I know because I had one.) Futons were an Eighties thing, not a Seventies thing. This stuff may sound nit-picky, but if you were actually there, these things stand out

Lastly, as other reviewers have observed, the characters are not really all that interesting or engaging (maybe the author meant her title to be "ironic?"). They are all hugely, embarassingly self-absorbed and spend a massive amount of time talking, talking, and talking yet again. The only member of the group that I really felt anything for at all was Jonah, the gay guy, who is the victim of an appalling episode of child abuse from one of his hippy-dippy mother's boyfriends. And the highly satisfying scene where Jonah finally confronts his smarmy abuser, decades later, is really the only part of the book that I would ever describe as "riveting" or "compelling." Tellingly, there's nothing approaching any kind of judgement from the author about Jonah's mother, a Joan Baez-style folksinger, and how she raised her son. She may have left him alone several times with a sociopath, and never provided him with a stable home, but she sings anti-war songs and gives free concerts to raise money for progressive causes, so hey, that makes it all right in the end. The same is true of Goodman, the ne'er-do-well character, who date-rapes the despised Cathy, but nobody cares because he would have voted for Carter in 1980--that is, if he hadn't skipped bail and left the country to avoid a jail sentence before then.

Unfortunately, the three main characters--Figman, Ash and Jules--are also the dreariest and the least interesting. Figman, in particular, suffers from being virtually canonized as a progressive saint by the author, a 21st century secular, liberal version of "Beth" from "Little Women"(and yes, Figman dies comparatively young at the end of the book, just like Beth.) See Figman turn down a plum job at Disney to nurse an old friend through illness; see Figman crusade against child labor in Indonesia; see Figman write generous checks to help out his less prosperous friends; see Figman nobly and unfailingly support his wife, Ash's, career as a feminist theater director. And also, see Figman become massively wealthy, even though he says he doesn't value money and just sort of falls into his success without being so vulgar as to, you know, actually seek it out (unlike that horrible Cathy). Which seems to be another progressive liberal fantasy update of an old literary convention--that of the virtuous heroine who ends up marrying a poor man for love, but who actually marries a rich, handsome earl in disguise. (Instead of the virginal Barbara Cartland heroine, you have the "brilliant" non-materialistic artist who **accidentally** becomes rich and famous, just because he's so wonderful and perfect and progressive and all.) Despite the author's constant attempts to make me adore Figman and feel devastated when he died, I simply didn't. Not at all. It was more like "thank God, he's finally gone."

But if Figman and Ash are dreary and predictable, at least they actually **do** things; you can't say the same about the third character in their weird, almost, romantic triangle. That would be Jules--a woman who must be a sure contender for the title of "Most Boring Protagonist in Literary History." And unfortunately, that's the really **big** flaw of the book, because Jules is actually the main character, through whom we see the unfolding lives of all the other "Interestings." There is nothing the least bit interesting about Jules. She marries a fairly unsuitable, but not really horrible man named Dennis, has two kids, and puts aside her brief, failed acting career to become a therapist. There is literally nothing else; end of story. Even her therapy clients are boring, with boring, trivial problems. No Bob Newhart-style quirkiness here.

In closing, a writer on a blog I sometimes read wrote a post recently, which noted that today's best-selling literary authors don't really live "real" lives anymore, unlike the literary lions of the 20th Century. They all seem to come from more or less the same class of people, and go directly from grad school at a top-tier, usually Eastern, college, to a book contract wangled through a friend or relative's contacts within the highly incestuous, New York publishing milieu. Unlike, say, Ernest Hemingway, a World War I veteran, or George Orwell, a former homeless man, or John Steinbeck, a one-time farm worker and fish hatchery watchman. Sadly, Ms. Wolitzer's writing style, world view, and subject matter all seem to bear this theory out.

After finishing this book, I decided to finally read "From Here to Eternity," (on my Bucket List of modern classics forever) just to wash the claustrophobic triviality of "The Interestings" out of my mind.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I hate to give up on a book but I got more than half way through and realized I didn't care at all about these characters because I didn't really believe in them in the first place. While clearly a gifted writer, this author cannot expect the reader to simply accept certain truths about her characters -- they're witty, compelling, interesting -- simply because she says so without demonstrating any of those qualities in the narrative. What a waste of time.
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38 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
this is the first book i've read by wolitzer, so I have no basis to compare her other works in this review. I thought it was a well-written and, at its best, touching novel. I also want to note that although I am not a boomer, and am only 26, I was drawn to a lot of the setting, i.e., summer camp, Long Island, post-college adjustments in the city, and, they didn't necessarily do anything to enhance the book. They didn't hurt the book either, but maybe I'm jaded from so many other books out there that cover this type of lifestyle I grew up with.

mostly, i felt these over-written descriptions of the the settings and the attitudes of the urban NY environment, dating from the 80s to the present, were the weakest aspects of the books. This is probably why I felt the book was way too long, but I am probably not the only one who felt the 500 page book was too long. For me, I just felt it was unnecessary to include the political aspects (e.g., the group's unanimous hatred towards Reagean) or the sociological problems of their times, i.e, Jonah's boyfriend's struggle with AIDS and its ubiquity during that time. I saw Rent; I've studied history, and I know enough about that time period that it seemed not only redundant but, even worse, created a political vibe that was not necessary and a bit preachy at times.

However, the bigger issue for me was that way too much time was spent on certain characters and their respective arcs, specifically Jules and Ethan. I have no problem with their characters, but I felt Jonah was by far the most interesting character and his story was significantly less involved, which annoyed me after 500 pages. In fact, he didn't even play any role in the final chapter, and I just don't feel Wolitzer did justice to his character.

My reading of it was more of a roller coaster experience, some of the passages were beautiful, and I was really intrigued by Ethan's unrequited love for Jules, and similarly fascinated by Jonah as a character. But they were overshadowed by tedious and repetitive chapters that I actually forced myself through before putting it down for the night. In the end, like a roller coaster ride, I was sort of in a WTF mindset, not necessarily in a bad way, just in a confused state of mind. Did I enjoy it? Yes, at times. Would I recommend it? Maybe, but it honestly read a too much like a rough draft. It needed serious editing, by which I mean the cutting of multiple chapters. And when I read the last sentence, which by the way was beautiful and moving, it almost felt like a separate entity- like she had written that ending sentence before even starting to write the book and spent 500 pages leading to it.
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