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The Interestings: A Novel Hardcover – April 9, 2013
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, April 2013: This knowing, generous and slyly sly new novel follows a group of teenagers who meet at a summer camp for artsy teens in 1974 and survive as friends through the competitions and realities of growing up. At its heart is Jules (nee Julie, she changes it that first summer to seem more sophisticated) Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress who comes to realize she’s got more creative temperament than talent; her almost boyfriend Ethan Figman, the true genius in the bunch (he’s a cartoonist); musician Jonah Bay, son of a famous Baez-ish folksinger; and the Wolf siblings, Ash and Goodman, attractive and mysterious. How these five circle each other, come together and break apart, makes for plenty of hilarious scenes and plenty of heartbreaking ones, too. A compelling coming of age story about five privileged kids, this is also a pitch-perfect tale about a particular generation and the era that spawned it. --Sara Nelson
In that self-obsessed, hyperaware, and mordantly ironic way of privileged teens, Ethan, Jonah, Cathy, Ash, and her brother Goodman dub themselves “The Interestings” when they reconvene at their trendy creative-arts summer camp in the Berkshire Mountains. Jules, née Julie, Jacobson is both flattered and flabbergasted to be admitted into their little enclave, where she uses her sardonic wit to compensate for a lack of beauty, money, or social graces. To her surprise, golden-girl Ash adopts her as her best friend, while the dorky but brilliant Ethan becomes mired in unrequited love. After a tragedy affects two of their members in very different ways, the remaining group slogs their way into adulthood, embarking upon careers and relationships with varying degrees of success and satisfaction. Despite being rooted in a wealth of pop-cultural references, from Nixon’s resignation to the Moonies to Wall Street scandals and even the aftermath of 9/11, Wolitzer’s clique of narcissistic friends turns out to be not so interesting after all. --Carol Haggas
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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.
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.