Meg Wolitzer is that rare author whose novels are both political and enjoyable. Her funny and intelligent feminist fiction includes the Lysistrata-inspired The Uncoupling along with a nuanced exploration of “having it all” and the so-called Mommy Wars in The Ten-Year Nap.
Her latest novel, The Interestings, moves away from this intense focus on women’s place in the world toward an examination of disappointment at early talent’s failure to thrive, and of the impossibility of sustaining the illusion of one’s specialness. Tracing a group of characters from adolescence to middle age, Wolitzer has written the kind of book we hope for every time we begin a literary novel: clever, sensitive, universal yet particular, political without being didactic.
Jules Jacobson, a small-town girl on a scholarship to an artsy summer camp, is in thrall to her new buddies, a group that has called itself the Interestings. Ethan, Cathy, Jonah and the glamorous Wolf siblings, Ash and Goodman all have cultural or economic (and usually both) capital by the trunkful, opening Jules’s eyes to an unsuspected world of freedom, creativity and artistic exploration. As she shines onstage that first summer, her future seems to open up.
The teenagers reconvene the next summer and hang out together during the school year. But the following winter, the group is ripped apart by an allegation of rape. Family ranks close; sides are taken. Shades of Steubenville: even the two other girls in the group never question the rapist’s innocence. Even if he did rape her, she was drunk and high; it’s her own fault. How ludicrous, the idea of destroying a promising boy’s golden future over such a foolish incident. He was drunk and high; it’s hardly his fault.
Picking themselves up after this crisis, the four remaining friends stumble through college and into the adult world, hoping to realize their dreams. But the trouble with talent, the novel demonstrates, is twofold: It is far from the only thing required for success, and even if ability and passion make you motivated and ambitious, you might turn out to be mediocre once released to a world that does not reward effort and enjoyment.
Ethan and Ash, now a couple, turn out to have both the money and skill necessary to become astonishingly successful at what they love. Jules, meanwhile, abandons her acting dreams after year on year of auditioning for parts and never being called back.
As one of America’s best literary authors, Wolitzer is the sort of writer who makes aspiring novelists wonder what is left to say. Always curious about her characters, she refuses to churn out easy literary tropes.
When Ash and Ethan’s son is diagnosed as autistic, it’s not the cue for some happy-go-lucky stereotype to waltz in and get some comedic mileage out of an endearing tic and an inability to interpret metaphor. Having a child on the spectrum is hard even for these parents, with all the money in the world to pay for the necessary support.
Depression, too, is shown realistically, rather than as some poetic state conducive to creativity. Jules’s husband, Dennis, can barely function for several years, taking an enormous toll on their family. That Dennis is a secondary character makes a plausible portrayal of the condition easier to manage, as Wolitzer does not need to make us privy to the busily inert mental ruminations of a depressive, focusing instead on the effect on other people’s lives.
Wolitzer’s pithy observations, stinging wit and brutal insights emphasize the small joys and lingering sorrows of the human condition in this outstanding novel. Conflict and contradiction are portrayed with a painful, honest tenderness, showing how Jules struggles to deal with her friends’ achievements even as she loves them dearly. So when the opportunity comes to return to the summer camp as director, she sees it as a second chance, allowing her to live through the campers and their creative ambitions (or so she tells herself; her perceptive husband knows better).
A lesser writer would here submit to farce or implausibility, overwhelmed by the task of bringing a meandering cerebral journey to a satisfactory conclusion, but Wolitzer keeps things tight. Running the camp turns out not to offer redemption or resolution, and Jules’s decision to quit causes a serious marital rift. What heals the wound is bad news from another quarter, as the Interestings, now in their 50, face mortality. But here, too, there is disappointment, and a final realization that even friendship cannot make it through life entirely unscathed.
J.C. Sutcliffe writes about books at slightlybookist.wordpress.com.