It has taken me what feels like decades to write this review of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.
First, I thought I’d start by talking about talent/success. Then, I decided I’d use Wolitzer’s fantastic New York Times piece on the rules of literary fiction for men and women to take a feminist approach to my review.
All of these ideas just left me staring at an empty page, feeling frustrated and unable to find that elusive “hook.”
“I can’t write this,” I said to my boyfriend in despair. “I have nothing interesting to say about this book.”
“Are you saying that The Interestings was not that interesting?” he replied jokingly, making a “get it?” face.
Yes, I got it. But while I didn’t laugh particularly hard, he did get me thinking.
What does it mean to be interesting? That’s one of the major themes running through this intelligent, incredibly moving novel. Starting with six teenagers who have (maybe ironically, maybe not) named themselves “The Interestings” at a summer camp for the arts, Wolitzer follows them through several decades to show us the ways their friendships evolve as some achieve the kind of creative successes they all dreamed of, while others fall into careers that at times feel small and, well, uninteresting.
I loved this book. It is certainly ambitious – at 500+ pages, this book takes up space. And it is also a “big” book in other senses of the word, with a wide scope spanning several decades and telling of multiple lives. But it was the richly articulated, unflinching yet compassionate drawing of the characters is what I found to be Wolitzer’s most remarkable achievement.
I Like Coffee, I Like Tea (What I Liked):
1. The Exploration of Talent & Success.
As teenagers at Spirit-in-the-Woods, all six of the Interestings seem to sense that the creative promise that brought them to the camp would someday lead to lives of great success.
Success is tricky, though, and the novel does a good job of illustrating how there is no foolproof formula. Talent, money, beauty, charm, passion, hard work, luck – all of these, some of these, or none of these can bring about success. The right combination for one person does not necessarily work for another.
Also, we are able to see through one character in particular how an inability to meet a rigid definition of success can result in feelings of envy and dissatisfaction. But, the novel seems to suggest that there are different ways of defining success. Of course, it can mean you’re rich and famous, but it can also mean that you’re doing good in the world, or it can mean that you’re happy with what you have and who you are.
2. The Treatment of Friendship.
As people grow up, friendships inevitably change, and Wolitzer’s portrayal of the different stages of a friendship feels very honest and real. Friends may split off and form their own families, and power dynamics can shift if one friend’s wealth surpasses another’s. Wolitzer’s affirmation of the stable bond, built upon a shared history and a deep trust of one another, that persists throughout these changes is especially moving and memorable: “If Jules or Ash needed to see each other, then the two husbands stepped aside. It seemed gratifying to the men to step aside in those moments, remembering what women could have together that men rarely could. Ash and Jules felt relief in knowing each other as well as they did. The friendship was like a fortification for their marriages, an extra layer of security” (272).
3. The Characters.
All of the characters in this book had their virtues and their flaws. I particularly loved Jules, the character Wolitzer focuses most upon in the novel. She begins the novel as an outsider; she cannot believe that she, a middle-class suburban girl who just lost her father, could possibly have fallen into such a sophisticated crowd. It’s true that sometimes her feeling of being so lucky to have been noticed prevents her from seeing her friends critically, and she does have the occasional “envy tantrums” (who doesn’t?). But she is funny, loyal, and wonderfully relatable.
But Though I Liked the Book, This Didn’t Please Me (What I Didn’t Like):
My objections to this book are so minor that a list is completely unnecessary.
I will admit that the book started out a bit slowly for me – the moving back and forth in time took some getting used to. I can single out the moment, though, when I fully accepted this novel.
Toward the beginning of the book, there is a brilliant dinner party scene in which Jules first meets her husband Dennis. The scene takes up quite a few pages because we keep moving through different moments in time, always returning to the dinner scene. While reading this, something seemed to change in the way my mind was processing the book. This probably sounds strange, but it was like my mind stopped just floating through time with these characters and instead sort of settled in and spread out. From that point on, I was totally immersed.
Titling the book The Interestings almost begs you to ask, like my boyfriend did, if the book itself is interesting. “Nothing happens,” some readers have said. “It’s just people living.” But sometimes that’s exactly the thing that’s most interesting.