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Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings is about a group of teenagers that meet in the summer of ’74 at an art camp on the East Coast. Each teen possesses “potential”—however, their varying greatnesses and failures are documented throughout the rest of the book. Bonded by similar goals of success and bright-eyed notions of talent, the group remains close-knit until something terrible happens. Its aftermath eventually rids the group of two members irrevocably, and proves to be a constant haunting presence throughout the rest of the novel. 

There is Jules—the plain(ish), middle-class girl from a less-than-thrilling suburban background who discovers an aptitude for humor; Ethan, the real genius in the group, who shows extreme promise as a cartoonist; Jonah, the son of a famous folk-singer; the Wolf twins—beautiful, wealthy, and seemingly perfect; Cathy, the voluptuous and older-than-her-years dancer. 

The reader is privy to the varying intimacies of each of the group’s members, and the heartbreak and first loves and resentments that take form, are over-ruled, and buried. Though the story at its core is Jules’, the narrative expands to each of the characters, and is linked inextricably to that first summer at an out-of-the-way art camp. 

The Interestings is about life, and the ways it stretches us out, re-assigns and realigns our interests, and how a group of friends, though externally altered, can remain friends. Their closeness changes, of course: with the onslaught of coupling, the initial children to be had, and the jobs to be heavy and tired from, it’s different than the carefree friendship of fifteen. The novel is also about talent, and questions if having it is honestly enough to succeed. 

The novel has its set-backs. Close to 500 pages long, the story wains and then charges forwards once more in an untempered and not-always-enjoyable way. Its structure is a series of pieced-together “moments” spanning one scene to a few months. At first, it jumped from the group’s adolescent years to their middle age. I found this jarring as a reader and honestly would have preferred a more stream-lined narrative. There’s also a good bit of scene “fluff” that I feel could have been cut without compromising the story. Because, in its essence, the story is about life. Maybe Wolitzer was attempting to recreate that “life-y” narrative by including a few mundane scenes. Maybe it was an intentional trick to reinforce the story in its extreme realism. However, I think it unfortunately lessened the impact of those many wonderful scenes in the process.

I admire the novel’s fidelity to realism. With a story set in New York, centered around a group of precocious children, regardless of their differing levels of talent, it could have been easy as a writer to sugar-coat the story, make it easy on the readers, and dismiss the realities of a talent-choked New York. But Wolitzer refrains–she writes, instead, about the million tiny tragedies that people go through on a daily basis. She skillfully shows the small, terrible things that no one mentions, the inner thoughts that you’d rather die than admit you’ve thought. Her character studies are astute and oftentimes brilliant, and she doesn’t leave us with a happy ending. It’s faintly sad, a little disappointing, but you’re reassured they’ll be okay somehow. And that’s powerful. She writes the characters into life, readily shows their flaws, but keeps us interested, despite their selfishness. Whether or not you’re a talented playwright, one’s life is always interesting–not always perfect, oftentimes sad, but to call it uninteresting is a falsehood.

I had my fair share of qualms with Jules. Her constant, self-conscious and totally skewed idea of herself gets tiresome, especially when we find her fifty, married, and a mother. She’s starstruck by her friends, and it’s obvious to everyone but herself. She doesn’t always treat Dennis, her husband, with the amount of respect he deserves. However, Wolitzer portrays her protagonist realistically, while not allowing us totally despise her, because she’s a good person at heart, just confused and over-ridden with deep-seated jealousy for her more successful friends. There were a lot of times I wanted to reach out and shake some sense into Jules. She spent a good thirty years of her life being perpetually dissatisfied, and it felt like a waste. It was a waste. And maybe that’s the point. It’s easy to pass our lives away hoping for that often unattainable glamour.

With all that said, it’s a riveting character study on realistically-written people. They aren’t heroes, but they’re not all that bad, either. They’ll remind you of yourself, of your friends, and probably of your enemies. The novel poses a lot of interesting questions pertaining to the idea of success—what is it really? And when should you begin accepting the life that you’re leading? Is it healthy to dream big? Is talent all that it takes to “make it?”

Reviewed by M.B. Sellers

Book Information
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 3/25/2014
Pages: 560

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