Ash and Goodman, Julie (soon to become “Jules”) Jacobson, Ethan, Jonah, and Cathy meet at a summer camp for artistic youth called Spirit-in-the-Woods in 1974 and, though they didn’t comprehend it at the time, their lives would become forever-fused. We follow this group through the highs and lows of life and friendship until well into their 50s and, along the way, begin to see the effects of power, money, family, and lifelong bonds.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer is a bit of an enigma to me. It is completely character-driven, with a plot that can only be described as life being lived and, as a result, it is one of the most sprawling books I’ve read in recent years. In the inception of the novel in the 70s, a group of teens bond together as teens do at summer camp. We meet Jules, the outsider who becomes one of them with her wit and eccentricities; Ash, who is beautiful, elegant, and a natural caretaker; Ash’s brother Goodman, who reveals himself to be anything but a good man; Ethan, a natural talent whose physical appearance doesn’t stack up; Jonah, who is buttoned up and hard to read; and Cathy, who we know for only a short time. When a trauma occurs between two members of their group, the remaining four plod their way together through adolescence, adulthood, and middle-age. Their interactions and choices set the scene for some very high-level themes, which remains intriguing even when the plot doesn’t.
As I moved through the book, I found that this motley crew is a prime example of unlikable characters and why we should read books where we don’t necessarily love the people we are reading about. For example, Jules is petty and jealous and selfish for a majority of her life. I rarely rose above neutrality with her, but this was Wolitzer’s point. Humans are formed from their environments and their outlook, and Jules was surrounded by the extreme wealth and success of her two closest friends, Ethan and Ash. This situation brought out the worst in her time and time again and it also confronts the idea of “interesting”. Who is special? Who can consider themselves interesting and why? The author makes a point about taking the reins of your life and allowing yourself to play the hand that is given to us to the best of our abilities.
In fact, that’s exactly where this book really thrived. Wolitzer takes her time and makes big observations about the things in life we will all experience. Friendships are challenging and constantly evolving, especially if they are the type of friendships that you couldn’t shake if you tried. I loved her perspective on the eroding effect of wealth on both those who have it and those who are only adjacent to it. I found her view on marriage to be bleak most of the time, but powerful in its lessons. These and many other huge themes are able to be tackled in a book so large, and for that I really appreciated The Interestings.
One of the detractors in this book was the sheer size in combination with the minutia of the plot. It took me weeks to get through this book and I read two others in the middle. I’m a a bit torn because I do think having space to work out the themes was important and necessary, but I still think it dragged a little bit too much. It’s one I would recommend, but to the right reader.
Overall? This book offers a reader a huge amount of space to think and come to conclusions about big ideas, so if you are prepared for a journey and are comfortable with character-driven novels, this one is for you.
PUBLICATION DETAILS: Riverhead Books; April 9, 2013; 9781594488399; 469 pp; Fiction -> Literary Fiction