The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Reviewed by Louise Hilton.
Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel The Interestings popped up on several Summer Must-Read lists and I’m so glad I gave it a try for it is simply magnificent. The story chronicles the lifelong friendships of the four main characters – Ethan Figman, Jules Jacobson, Ash Wolf, and Jonah Bay (their names alone draw you in) – forged at an arts camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods (it was the ’70s) the summer they were fifteen and dubbed themselves the Interestings (oh, the refreshingly unapologetic self-importance of teenagers). Thanks to Wolitzer’s remarkable gift for character development, following the lives of this group of friends from their precocious teenage years through middle age makes for a satisfying read. She fleshes the details of the Interestings’ lives out so completely, you feel as if you know them and become somehow invested in their futures, an exceptional accomplishment for a writer.
Ethan is a chubby, homely, sweet-natured boy, whose early aptitude for drawing leads to the development of a hugely popular animated television show in his adult life, bringing the shy Ethan an almost unseemly level of fame and fortune. The teenage Ethan falls hard for Jules, a self-conscious girl who discovers that her awkwardness disappears when she’s on stage at camp, her comedic talents leading her to later pursue a career in acting. Once that difficult career path doesn’t quite pan out the way she’d hoped, she studies to become a psychiatrist.
Jules becomes fast friends with the beautiful and wealthy Ash, and is welcomed into Ash’s sophisticated family. So intoxicating is the pull of the Wolf family’s rarefied Manhattan world on suburban Jules that it takes her years to finally accept the utter normalcy of her life and recognize that there is something noble in living a decent, hard-working life.
And then there’s Ash’s impossibly handsome – and impossibly arrogant – brother Goodman, whose brutish behavior one drunken New Year’s Eve has lifelong repercussions not only for himself but for his ex-girlfriend (a high-strung ballerina named Cathy who was also one of the original Spirit-in-the-Woods campers), his family, and his circle of friends. I won’t say more on Goodman so as not to give anything major away. Jonah Bay, the gentle, handsome son of a famous folk singer, who is harboring a painful childhood secret, rounds out the group of friends.
A highlight of the book is Wolitzer’s marvelous depiction of the relationship between Ethan and Jules, whose initial puppy love blossoms into a lifelong friendship based on profound admiration and unadulterated enjoyment of one another’s company, truly the rarest type of friendship (never mind Ethan’s undying love for Jules…).
While the relationships among the Interestings and their significant others are the focus of the story, the book is really a musing on success: how some of us will have it, some of us won’t, and how to deal with the fallout when, in Jules’s case, your closest friends become wildly successful while your life turns out to be not quite as spectacular as your fifteen-year-old self had imagined it to be. We can’t all be Ethan Figmans.
At 468 pages, this is no easy breezy read, but I bet you will find yourself, as I did, savoring every word and not wanting it to end. It’s that good.
I’ll end this review with the final sentences of the book. Jules is reminiscing, looking at an old aerial photograph of all the teenage campers: “In it, Ethan’s feet were planted on Jules’s head, and Jules’s feet were planted on Goodman’s head, and so on and so on. And didn’t it always go like that – body parts not quite lining up the way you wanted them to, all of it a little bit off, as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.”