Warning: This could be a biased review. More likely, it’s a case of Meg Wolitzer’s ninth novel, THE INTERESTINGS, hitting its mark.
You see, when I was 15, I used to be a member of “the Interestings.” It doesn’t matter if our motley crew of offbeat, creative, terribly sensitive teenagers actually were interesting; we just believed we were --- and that’s the point. Like “Jules” Jacobson --- freshly plucked from the boring suburbs and eager to befriend (and make an impression on) a select group of über talented “cool kids” from New York City at an artsy-fartsy art camp in the woods --- I started out as the frizzy-haired, perennially awkward type, whose gifts took a long time to unlock. There was an Ethan in our group --- the homely-looking but naturally creative genius everyone adored; a Jonah --- fragile and soft-spoken; a Cathy --- brassy and sexy; and an impetuous and unbearably handsome Goodman. And of course, there was also a waify, beautiful, and impossibly good Ash. We were smart. Ironic. Precocious and exclusive. And, oh yes, we had gobs of talent. Like “the Interestings” in Wolitzer’s book, we “all seduced one another with greatness, or with the assumption of eventual greatness. Greatness-in-waiting.”
While the particulars of Wolitzer’s book differ slightly --- the Interestings of my ’80s youth (a full decade after the novel takes place) slept in one of 13 (or was it 16?) bare-bones motel rooms flanking two sides of a pool on a hill across the graveled street from a brown-shingled theater, rather than teepees; I went to a strictly theater/dance/music-related “workshop” associated with an Equity summer theatre in New Hampshire, rather than an all-around arts camp in the woods of Massachusetts --- the overall experience was the same. Much like the campers in “Spirit-in-the-Woods,” we sewed costumes, took dance classes, and auditioned --- some successfully, some not --- for plays and prepared scenes, but mostly the girls snuck into the boys’ room at night and whispered about life surrounded by candles and the smell of strawberry incense. We felt thrillingly alive, loved, and seen for perhaps the first time as the person we burned to be. We were our own newly cemented family and had each other’s backs --- for better or for worse --- always. At the end of the summer, leaving was the closest thing to death that some of us had experienced. It was the equivalent of being forced to recommit to a world filled with robotic, uninspired people who “just didn’t understand.”
"Warning: This could be a biased review. More likely, it’s a case of Meg Wolitzer’s ninth novel, THE INTERESTINGS, hitting its mark.... Wolitzer’s sweeping, endlessly absorbing tome is about how we grow old and make peace with our lot in life."
If that sounds pretentious and precious, it surely is. When you’re young and, let’s face it, privileged, you can afford to think of leaving summer camp and rejoining a life where you feel misunderstood and underappreciated as morally cruel and unfair. Why willingly tear yourself away from the bubble that’s at once so comforting and self-affirming? In fact, if you can figure out how to stay in that bubble forever, why grow up at all?
In some part, the characters in THE INTERESTINGS try their hardest to do just that. Beyond Spirit-in-the-Woods and over the span of 40 or so years, Jules, Ethan, sister and brother Ash and Goodman, Cathy and Jonah cling to their past selves --- or who they thought they were at the time --- while repeatedly adjusting and readjusting their futures accordingly. Throughout their early 20s, they play at starting their lives while merely shifting their tête-à-têtes from Spirit-in-the-Woods teepee to the cushy sofas and kitchen stools inside Ash and Goodman’s parents’ grandiose apartment on Central Park West and 91st Street (appropriately called the Labyrinth). “Art was still central, but now everyone had to think about making a living too, and they did so with a kind of scorn for money except as it allowed them to live the way they wanted to live.” Jules keeps banging away at acting, auditioning but never landing any parts. Lost and delicate Jonah willingly joins the Moonies on an upstate farm for the summer before being rescued and “deprogrammed” by his concerned friends. Even Ethan, though he later finds worldwide success and bottomless wealth as an animator, struggles to figure out how to sell the ideas he’s kept, up until that point, safely and comfortably in his head. In short, “they were all spreading out, stretching, staying close as friends but getting the lay of the land that looked very different when you were on your own.”
But stay forever young they can’t and grow up they must. As the years fly by, each character is faced with their own cesspool of setbacks. Jules doesn’t become a famous actress or marry an artist, but settles for psychiatry and an “ordinary” husband with a medical career and frequent bouts of depression. The now openly gay Jonah gives up music, maybe prematurely, in favor of becoming an engineer, and no thanks to her voluptuous breasts, Cathy forgoes dancing in favor of finance. Goodman, perhaps the most advantaged Spirit-in-the-Woods camper at the outset (and, in my opinion, least likable character), faces a life-altering situation, the details of which I won’t spill for the purposes of this review (I will say, though, that the twist unleashes a torrent of issues to think about and debate). And how do Ash and Ethan, the unlikely but enviable couple, fare from an outsider’s perspective? Sure they have fortune and fame, but do they have trust? Are they soulmates? It depends on whom you ask.
In truth, Wolitzer’s sweeping, endlessly absorbing tome is about how we grow old and make peace with our lot in life. As our dreams and opinions soften, twist and fade over time, do we regret what once was or do we embrace whatever is to come, or both? Do we want what our friends have, or are we content with what we have? Would we have done anything differently if given the chance? And how gracefully can we accept that, as Ash says, “the reality [of life] is really different from the fantasy?”
While I have more than a few years before I reach my late 50s/early 60s --- the age of the characters at the end of THE INTERESTINGS --- those halcyon days of my version of Spirit-in-the-Woods are long gone. Do I miss that freedom, that ease of believing in what’s possible, that (what I call now) naiveté? You bet. Are my friends and I as tight as we once were? Some yes, others no. Do I regret not becoming an actress? Nah, I really wasn’t that talented. But it’s okay. Like Jules, I have grown up to find the act itself of getting older to be interesting of a different sort, and that’s comfortably enough. “You [don’t] have to marry your soulmate, and you [don’t] even have to marry an Interesting. You [don’t] always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who [cracks] everyone up, or [makes] everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who [writes] and [stars] in the play that [gets] the standing ovation. You [can] cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting…. the definition [can] change.”
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on April 12, 2013